Some early memories stay with you for life and for me one of them was the view from Benfleet church in Essex looking down over Canvey Island one morning in January 1953. My father had a small wholesale ironmongery business opposite Chingford station in east London and I sometimes went with him in the school holidays on his delivery rounds along the north bank of the Thames estuary as far as Southend. The spring half-term holiday that year was one such occasion and it coincided with the disastrous floods that devastated much of the east coast, killing 307 people in the UK (most by drowning) and well over a thousand in the Netherlands (see Ken Worpole, "The great tide of 1953", 25 January 2013).
That view from Benfleet was of a Canvey Island that was almost entirely inundated - water as far as the eye could see, with only the roofs of the island’s numerous bungalows barely visible, a shocking sight and part of a disaster that had an impact on the whole country. Though this was long before climate change was recognised as a potential cause of even greater problems, the 1953 floods were sufficiently serious for subsequent governments to bring in reinforced sea defences down much of the east coast and even investigate the seemingly wild idea of building a moveable barrier across the Thames to protect London.
Across a century
London’s importance and potential vulnerability to flooding ensured that extraordinary project came to fruition thirty years later, in 1983, with the expectation that it would rarely need to be used. It was an expectation fulfilled in the early years, with the Thames Barrier only needing to be raised on four occasions during the whole of the rest of the 1980s. Indeed, so rare wwas the need, each occasion was a media events in its own right.
The contrast with what has happened since, especially in the recent past, is radical. From 1990-2013, the barrier was raised 112 times, mostly in recent years, and since the start of this year it has been raised forty times, twenty of them in the past two weeks. That the barrier is designed to be utilised no more than fifty times a year makes it understandable that there are now calls being made for a newer and even more robust form of protection for London (see Michael Hanlon, “The Thames Barrier has saved London - but is it time for TB2?”, Daily Telegraph, 18 February 2014).
This same report says: “Current plans by the Environment Agency, which operates London’s flood defences, to keep the barrier operational until the 2070s, are untenable, they say. In the face of climate change that is producing rising sea levels and more powerful storms of the kind that have made this winter catastrophic for so many?”
Even this will have little effect on the climate-change-denial community. Neither will the graphic flooding of the Somerset Levels, where tens of thousands of acres of land are under water. In terms of changing perceptions, though, much more significant is the relatively smaller-scale flooding along the Thames valley to the west of London where it is not yet tidal (and not much affected by the use of the barrier). Indeed there is a suspicion that it is this area, around Chertsey and similar riverside towns, that has persuaded the Labour opposition leader, Ed Miliband, to talk of a climate change as a national-security issue which if ignored risks disaster.
Miliband and his advisors have the political sense to know that such a statement will strike a chord in a way that would not have been possible a few weeks ago. This is largely due to the widespread publicity over the floods, but also because of this one particular aspect of their location. Put bluntly, the banks of the Thames west of London are very expensive and much sought-after places to live. They are therefore home to significant numbers of members of the political, business and professional elites of Britain. Indeed, there will be few media figures, politicians or business leaders who do not have friends and acquaintances directly affected by the floods.
The floods affecting Canvey Island sixty years ago were far more destructive but it is probable that the experience of early 2014 will have a much greater influence - bringing climate change much further up the political agenda, if not creating a tipping-point in the argument (see "The global climate cliff", 18 July 2013).
If so, it will not be the first time that such a “canary effect” has been much enhanced by a specific and direct impact on elites. The “great stink" of London in 1858 when the fetid Thames smelt so bad that parliament could not sit, finally resulted in London getting a proper sewage system. Nearly a hundred years later, the “great smog" of London in 1952 killed 4,000 mostly poor people but impacted on the elite of the day and hugely speeded up the implementation of urban clean-air measures throughout the UK.
Around the world
The floods of January-February 2014 are directly relevant only to Britain. But extreme-weather events somewhere round the world are now reported weekly: whether the mild weather this winter across much of the near-Arctic, the California drought, the Buenos Aires heatwave or the worst tropical storm to hit land, in the Philippines in November 2013 (see "2014, a climate emergency", 10 January 2014). Bit by bit, a debate warped by big spending by fossil-fuel companies and free-market foundations is changing, helped on occasions by a biteback from other funders; most recently, the $100 million campaign launched by Tom Steyer, a Democrat supporter, in the United States and directed towards this year’s Congressional mid-sessional elections (see Nicholas Confessore, “Big spender puts climate issue to voters”, New York Times, 18 February 2014).
Whether this heralds a more radical change in attitudes, and perhaps even urgent political action, remains to be seen. But if it does then the “Chertsey effect” may yet earn a small but significant place in history.
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