Climate change in the UK: a complete and utter failure of political will

Britain is in the grip of some of the worst winter weather in years. In fact, maybe 100 years—that’s what meteorologists are calling the winter rains and storms we’ve been experiencing. Here in London it hasn’t been particularly bad—a warmer winter than usual, not a drop of snow in sight, but plenty of wind and rain, and occasionally a tree goes down. Down southwest way, however, it’s another story. Somerset is experiencing horrific flooding—as are Devon and Cornwall. Entire towns are now being evacuated following a series of storms that show no signs of ending.

It’s not that any one of the storms in isolation was that bad—although the most recent one did have gale Force 10 winds, making it the equivalent of a small hurricane. It’s that they keep on coming. In the first half of January, according to the Met Office, the UK had 151% of its average rainfall for the period. And there’s more coming in tonight, and then Sunday too. Maybe forever, who knows?

Residents are calling for the government to take more active measures, like dredging the rivers. David Cameron, true to form, has hopped on to this particular bandwagon and promised more dredging of the rivers. The local Tory MP from Somerset, which seems to have gotten the worst of this, today threatened to beat up the Environment Secretary. Many of the tales of families forced to leave their farms and homes are indeed heartbreaking. And the damage is horrific in some areas—25 square miles were under water as of this morning. Fortunately, people seem to be getting out ok, and the animals as well—there are a lot of animals out there.

But, but…as George Monbiot and Tony Juniper point out, there’s more to this than just dredging some rivers—it’s not clear that this will actually solve the problem in any event. In fact, it might make it worse. There’s a reason why the massive river dredging of decades ago has largely been curtailed. Plus there’s the crazy agricultural policy of the EC, which Britain appears to have embraced, of cutting down trees on agricultural land. Actually, there’s no question that the increased industrialization of agriculture, even in pockets of Britain, where monoculture is increasingly dominating the industry, is playing a role in the increased flooding Britain has seen over the decades. This is clearly an exceptional amount of rain, granted. But the steady loss of trees (which soak up water like crazy), the increased compaction of the soil over the years from increased mechanization of farming, and increased residential building in flood-prone areas have all played a role. Much of Somerset is bogs and wetlands that have been drained for farming, and some is below sea level. So when a once-in-a-hundred year storm series comes along, no one should be surprised that there’s massive flooding. But surprised they are.

More to the point, was no one paying attention a month ago when the Met office, which has done a pretty good job of forecasting this year, warned that we were going to see a whole lot of winter storms, with lots of flood risk? And this is a country that regularly has been losing chunks of its coast for centuries. To give some idea of this, The Guardian today has a fantastic story about human footprints that are 800,000 years old being found on the Norfolk coast—the oldest find outside of Africa. The article points out that since the find—last May—erosion has already obliterated it in a process that has eroded 30 meters since the find—that would be the past eight months. 30 meters—that’s a lot of erosion.

I’m not a fan of this government’s climate change policies, but I don’t fault the government much here, at least for their emergency response. I’m sure there could have been a bit more effort put into getting rescue vehicles for the animals out earlier. But, you know, so could the people who live out there. Was no one paying attention at all? We’re talking about a nearly unprecedented amount of rainfall in a relatively short period of time. What I do fault them for is their continued view that climate change doesn’t really need to be prepared for. It’s not that they’re not preparing—Britain actually has, or had, one of the better European approaches to climate change planning, relatively speaking—and it’s leagues ahead of what the US has. But it’s all longer term planning.

What there hasn’t been is any systematic effort to tell people that, well, guess what, you’re probably not going to be able to live 30 feet from the sea any more. Oh, and you know what else? The cost of energy is going to go up. And all of those other things that are coming along from global warming, except we continue to believe that it’s way down the road, and doesn’t need any attention now. This is where our politicians are completely and utterly failing us. Cameron did make some comment a few weeks ago about how the increase in storm severity might have something to do with climate change, but since then he’s not mentioned it. And there’s the additional problem that his Environment minister, who is supposed to be in charge of government measures to address flood control, is a global warming skeptic, and has been responsible for significant cuts in climate change spending by the British government. In act, the current government’s flood planning doesn’t include the potential impacts of climate change. And the media, with rare exception of the Juniper or the Monbiot, have been complicit by their silence.

We see the same sort of denial going on in the US, where we have the not particularly novel situation of Congress, again, backing off measures that would inconvenience homeowners who live along threatened coasts. Ironically, the only people here making sense, in addition to he usual gaggle of environmentalists and insurance companies, are the conservative Republicans involved in the debate—and I rarely say such a thing, believe me. So what happened? In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it suddenly became clear to a number of observers that perhaps building along coasts entailed a higher level of risk than previously assumed. Now, this should not have come as a surprise to any, but it did. And one result was an attempt to be a bit more rational about the Flood Insurance program in the US. This program hadn’t been updated for years, and was deeply in debt–$24 billion at present, and up to $30 billion by the time all the Sandy payouts are done with.

The US Congress, for actually pretty good reasons, decided that the program should no longer be given the generous subsidies that have characterized the program for decades. It’s one thing to try to keep farmers in agriculturally-productive floodplains—it’s another thing entirely to continue to subsidize construction of housing along potentially vulnerable coastlines. Not to mention rebuilding on the same land that has just been wiped out. So Congress decided that the Flood Insurance program needed to be put on a sounder financial footing. This meant that flood insurance costs would rise. As a result, a new set of maps of relative risks to flood-prone areas were drawn up, and flood insurance rates were adjusted accordingly. Well, all heck then broke loose, as they say.

In my part of Massachusetts, the part I used to live in and still keep up with, the town of Scituate is a good example of what’s happening. Scituate is always getting blasted by storms. One of the rituals during big storms in Massachusetts is watching the tv people go to Scituate and report on how the place was holding up—and there were always dramatic shots of waves pounding houses, that sort of thing. But when coastal residents realized how much their insurance was going to go up, they rebelled, and carried along our representative, who other wise is generally a pretty old guy. He’s been bombarding Facebook with updates about how he’s helping his constituents by fighting the new maps that the Flood Insurance people came up with to reflect flood risks.

And now, the Senate has caved. The world’s greatest deliberative body has, in its wisdom, just passed a bill that would extend by four years when the new rates would kick in so complaints about the mappings can be dealt with. Whatever. At that point, who knows how many more storms will have battered the country. That there will be another Sandy is no longer in doubt—the only questions are where and when. So when the next storm wipes out some beachfront property (often a second home), the US taxpayer is still subsidizing the insurance that will help rebuild that property–in exactly the same place.

So what should have been happening here? Well, for one thing, it’s time to take stock—which is something politicians on either side of the Atlantic continue to refuse to do. Coastal communities are endangered here. We know this. But our political representatives continue to avid the subject, even though they probably know it too. Cameron has said, as has Obama, that there is a relationship between extreme storms and global warming. But no one, it seems, is prepared to say to people—you know, you’re going to be more than a bit inconvenienced by all of this. Think Sandy, and think Sandy again. And then again.It’s not is if any of this is a secret—environmentalists, scientists, insurance companies and even some politicians have been banging on about this for years now. We know that this is going to be bad, and that economic losses are going to be horrific—globally, in the trillions.

So it should not come as a surprise that the UK government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change has warned that not much is being done to prepare Britain for the impacts of climate change. And this appears to be the case in the US as well. How to deal with this? Well, it would be nice to think that if we elected better politicians, we might get a bit more enlightened leadership. But we get the politicians we deserve, don’t we? But until governments, particularly at the federal level (because that’s usually where the funding is) emerge from the denial that they’re currently in, we’re just going to continue to be unprepared for the next Sandy, or the next series of bad winter storms here. What a depressing thought.

1 reply »

  1. Interesting post. Two separate problems really–unwillingness to deal with climate change and building in bad places. The stubborn rrefusal of people not to build on coasts (and deep in pine forests in the arid west) and their insistence that the government support their stupidity continues to drive me crazy. And not just beach shacks like those of the fifties, 4000 foot second homes with teak and granite. It’s at least understandable to build a home in the center of Staten Island, much less so two hundred feet from the water in southeast Florida.

    Many of those same people are anti-government interventionists, unless of course we’re talking about their seawall or pumping station or subsidized insurance. An underreported story of Sandy was that the big commercial insurers didnt get burned too badly, because even though they’ve learned not so say things like climate change in public because the anti-science crowd will go rabid on them, they’ve quietly been pulling out of coastal areas and other high risk zones. Florida’s responded with its own government backed insurance exchange, where the state takes on the risks the commercials guys dont want. Technically, come next big storm, this is known as a federal-bailout-in-waiting.