Visiting the front line of climate change in Britain

For Malcolm Kerby climate change is no distant threat to the Third World. He lives where it is already ruining lives... in Britain.

His home is in the small village of Happisburgh on the North Norfolk coast where the shore is retreating, battered by increasingly ferocious rising seas.

"This is the front line of climate change in Britain," he says. "We can't deny it. It's happening. We see it with our own eyes."

Sea levels are predicted to rise by a minimum of 37cms by 2050.

Latest world predictions claim they will reach 1.4m by the end of the century if the present rate of warming continues.

The flat Norfolk coast would be swamped, the Broads would become seawater and Peterborough a coastal town.

But all that's in the future. Happisburgh has already lost 26 homes in 17 years and several more are on the verge of tipping over the edge as long-term erosion of the soft-sediment coast speeds up.

But last night there was, finally, some hope as the the North Norfolk coast was awarded �5million by the Government to fight climate change erosion.

It will allow those about to lose their homes to the sea to receive compensation for the first time - and Malcolm was thrilled. He said: "It is quite simply the most important step ever taken in the management of our coastline.

"For the first time the coastal communities have a future."

And North Norfolk Liberal democrat MP Norman Lamb, who has been closely involved in the campaign to get help said: "It's a really massive breakthrough. It's the first time ever the rights of people threatened by the sea have been acknowledged.

"It is a recognition that climate change is a threat. There will be many communities hit."

Peter Frew from North Norfolk council said the money would be spent on 20 projects including demolishing homes teetering on cliffs and helping businesses. But despite the relief Malcolm warned: "We mustn't be complacent. It's only money until March 2011. We have still got problems."

Happisburgh's troubles began in the mid-90s when the sea defences built after the disastrous 1953 floods failed and were not replaced.

The cliff to the south of the village retreated a couple of hundred metres and a huge bay formed. Then in 2005 the village found it was official policy to "manage the coastline".

That means defending towns, cities and strategic points but not spending millions defending smaller communities like the 850 in Happisburgh.

Coastal campaigners were furious that through all the talk of global climate change there was less action on those in the UK who faced losing everything with no statutory right to be protected from the sea. Malcolm says: "We had to make them understand this is not a Happisburgh problem. It is a national problem."

Happisburgh formed the Coastal Concern Action Group and began fighting, recently creating the National Voice of Coastal Communities.

European-backed laws give more protection to sea cabbages and wildlife threatened by coastal erosion than people.

And it made Malcolm furious. He says: "I am sick to death of the Jesus creeper kaftan mob saying great crested newts, worms and things that fly have to come before human life and limb. If Flora and fauna is threatened Government has to find it a home. It could cost hundreds of millions to move a couple of newts or a sea cabbage. It beggars belief."

The Environment Agency predicts it will spend �1billion a year by 2035 on coast and flood defences due to climate change.

A spokesman said: "We will defend communities where financially viable but you can't build a wall round the whole UK." Phil Dyke, National Trust Coast and Marine Advisor believes the sea could rise up to a metre over the next 100 years with more huge storms.

He added: "It may prove better in the long run for some communities to move and be supported by government."

For Malcolm, though, the coast is something more. Some 16.9 million live in coastal areas with no one more than 75 miles from the sea. He says: "We are an island nation. It's that coast and the people who live on it who have shaped us as a people."

WILD CHANGES

The Met Office predicts the UK will start having hotter, drier summers along with warmer, wetter winters.

Central England has already increased by an average of 1C since the 70s.

And by the 2040s the record summer of 2003 will be the norm in Britain.

Here are some of the changes already happening...

Nature The false widow, below, is the UK's most venomous spider and has a painful bite. It's spreading east from Devon and is likely to travel northwards. Plants, including daffodils and Hawthorn, are flowering several months earlier. New exotic wildlife, such as the Harlequin ladybird and olive trees, are also thriving.

Health The 2003 heat wave caused 2,000 deaths and the NHS is expecting 5,000 extra cases of skin cancer by 2050.

Warmer, wetter winters will see a rise in asthma but 20,000 fewer cold deaths.

Travel By 2050 road and rail transport will be mostly carbon-free. The number of train users has doubled in 10 years, and is set to increase by half as much again over the next 30 years.

PERIL OF FLOODS

More than five million people in England and Wales live in properties at risk of flooding.

In Cumbria they are still mopping up after the worst deluge in the area for 1,000 years.

And November generally was the wettest on record with an average 8.5ins of rain across the country.

Get used to it, say climate change forecasters. We may not always get higher overall rain but localised storms causing flash floods will increase.

Mary Dhonau, of the National Flood Forum charity, said: "A monsoon type rain is now starting to hit the UK far more.

"The only way we can survive is to make our homes flood resilient."

In 2007, 55,000 homes and 6,000 businesses were hit causing �3billion of damage. This led to 80,000 insurance claims.