In the years I’ve been writing this blog I’ve written about flooding several times. I think it’s a really important issue – and not just because I’m sat here in Somerset. The floods – this time the flooding in Yorkshire – we are seeing are important not just because of the misery and loss they bring. They’re also important because of what they signify and how we react to that.
Just to back up a bit. I’m coming at this from the increasingly consensual position that the flooding we are now experiencing in the UK has been a consequence of several factors, including – at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious – a lot of rain. We are experiencing more extreme weather events and, consequently, more related disasters. These are among the most obvious symptoms of climate change.
It’s F***ing Raining
It’s interesting that some people find this really hard to take, and that (at least most of) the naysayers seem to be of a particular political hue. In Australia, deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack called environmentalists “inner-city raving lunatics” for suggesting there was a link between climate change and the wildfires ravaging New South Wales and Queensland. Donald Trump blamed the Californian governor, a Democrat, for the terrible forest fires there saying he had done a “terrible job of forest management”. He took to Twitter: “Every year, as the fire’s (sic) rage & California burns, it is the same thing – and then he comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help. No more. Get your act together Governor,”
For too long the root cause of increasing extreme weather events has been “opinion” – like the anti-vaxxing scandal. Our news outlets have pandered to this. They would do well to remember:
If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the f***ing window and find out which is true.Attributed to Will McAvoy, Newsroom
Lorraine Chase Did It
Some people continue to deny that the weather has changed at all. Some say it’s the EU’s fault. Others that “climate hoaxers” are seeding clouds over Luton Airport to cause flooding in Yorkshire. Cunning. Conspiracy theories and denial will ebb away as more and more people are impacted, you would think. Try telling the inhabitants of Abaco Bay that the hurricane that hit Barbados this year was just another hurricane.
The last to change their minds on this will be those who see this as some kind of issue pushed by a political opponent with an agenda. It. Is. Not.
The Wisdom of Crowds
What IS a political issue, of course, is the way we respond. As I have said before, our system of government is badly equipped to quickly produce the kind of long term and expensive answers that environmental problems demand. They are often complicated and nuanced. Many are unpopular – no-one wants to be told they will have to permanently abandon their house or farm. Solutions require politicians to cross tribal boundaries and give solid financial commitments. Obviously going to happen.
In the short term, more money might find its way to flood prevention – although the auguries aren’t good. Despite environmental concerns beginning to poll, the Environment Agency is now so under-funded it can’t help. Since 2013 the EA has lost nearly 20% of its staff. Houses continue to be built on flood plains willy nilly. Our built environment continues to include too many impermeable hard surfaces and not enough SuDS.
Moreover, there are anti-science forces at work here too, when it comes to methods of flood prevention. On news reports I hear over and over again that if rivers and ditches were properly dredged – “like they used to be” – then the problem would go away. Dredging simply isn’t the answer. It might help in some areas, but not if you get a month’s rainfall in 24 hours – and then more rain. Not if water pours off denuded hillsides. Not if the area you’re trying to protect – like the Somerset Levels – is 650 square kilometres with only around a 4m drop to sea level (currently!); the water has nowhere to go. Rivers aren’t downpipes in an efficient artificial drainage system. If you do dredge or build physical flood defences – at vast environmental and economic cost – you will just shunt the problem somewhere else. The flooding at Fishlake (a village in the Great Humberhead Levels – which used to be largely peat bog) was partly the consequence of the new flood defences at Sheffield, for example.
Hydrologists are big on other stuff. Slowing the flow of water from catchment areas. Managing those areas to absorb more rainfall and reduce runoff. Accepting and identifying where rivers will flood when they want to.*
It’s these evidence based solutions we need to get a move on with. We need to take this seriously (perhaps when London floods we will) and understand that what were 200 year weather events are the new normal. Quite apart from the human misery and social disintegration it brings, flooding also has a huge economic cost.
We need our politicians to stop bickering for a moment and take the lead on this. They need to dramatically increase funding for the EA and take some decisions which will be unpopular and expensive in the short term. We need to understand the landscape and change and adapt to it. There are some encouraging initiatives going on, but nothing of the kind of urgency and scale required. In the bigger picture, it might also be a start to reconstitute the Department For Climate Change.
*This is another example of how we have become removed from the natural landscape, by the way. We have forgotten this kind of stuff.