Floods, climate, and neglect: a reflection

Across northern England, local communities are under water from epic floods. Yet no one in government makes the link with climate change.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
30 December 2015

The River Aire at Kirkstall, Leeds bursts its banks, December 26, 2015.

The River Aire at Kirkstall, Leeds bursts its banks, December 26, 2015. Demotix/Steve Gaunt. All rights reserved.We have been lucky with the flooding where we live, at least so far. Kirkburton is in the east Pennines a few miles out of Huddersfield and the village was on the Environment Agency’s “risk of flooding” warning for twenty-four hours on the weekend of 26-27 December. Fortunately, while the rain may have been very heavy it didn’t persist here as long as it did up on the moors, but some of the Calder Valley towns like Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd and Sowerby Bridge were hit appallingly badly.

Less than two weeks ago we had been at the Winterlight Festival in the centre of Sowerby Bridge and saw the fireworks display at the end of the festival, standing on the bridge over the Calder river in the middle of the town. It was a spectacular view, about fifteen feet above the river, and it was a real shock to see TV shots at the weekend of the bridge with the torrent of water almost up to the bridge deck itself.

We have lived on what we call a “very-smallholding” here in Kirkburton for over forty years and though we are a very long way from being self-sufficient we do grow a lot of fruit and vegetables. Anyone in our position will have seen with their own eyes the impact of climate change (see "Climate change and global security", 2 January 2003)..

Not long ago I came across a couple of gardening diaries I’d kept in the early 1970s which tracked things like the first crocus, first daffodil, first frogspawn in the pond and the like, as well as autumnal changes. Broadly speaking, spring now comes about three weeks earlier and autumn about two to three weeks later than it did then. Our apple trees, especially the Bramley, used to fruit well every second year and then have a light “rest year”. Now they fruit in abundance every year.

Heavy snowfalls and road closures were regular occurrences and the common practice was to put a shovel in the boot of the car in October and take it out at the end of March. Now, we just don’t bother and are hardly ever caught out.

That climate change is happening is not in doubt, but the lack of association with the current flooding episodes is still surprising. A quarter of a century ago there were clear warnings that the trend for Britain would be more high winds, higher temperatures and marked variations in rainfall, with much more rain in the north and west. There were other warnings – for example, of far more intense individual incidents where rain would cause immediate flooding. All are now being experienced, with the latter resembling the tropical downpours I can remember from working in Uganda at the end of the 1960s.

The climate silence

If these clear predictions are now coming true, a question arises. Why is there a total silence on the part of prime minister David Cameron and all his cabinet ministers about the certain link between the many experiences of intense weather in the UK in recent years and climate change?

One explanation for this hit me between the eyes just over four years ago. Doing research on international security, especially in the Middle East, means occasional invitations to speak at oil-and-gas industry conferences. On one particular occasion I stayed for the whole of an intense twenty-four-hour “retreat”, just out of the interest of learning more about how fossil-fuel insiders thought about their industry.

Chatham House rules mean that I can’t name the person, but let us just say that a senior figure with absolutely impeccable connections with the Conservative-led government spoke at a session on environmental issues. Addressing those insiders, he was absolutely blunt. They were not to lose any sleep whatsoever about the government’s attitude to green issues – it was simply a matter of going through the motions for the sake of public appearances.

The government did not believe in this climate-change stuff and was fully on the industry’s side. Indeed, he gave the very firm impression that this was one of several areas where being in coalition with the Liberal Democrats was a real pain, something to be endured but also resisted where possible.

This experience came home to me much more recently when reading a highly informative article by Michael Le Page in the New Scientist, titled “Ungreen and not-so-pleasant land”. The author tracked the series of policy moves on green issues implemented in the three months after the May election by a Conservative government now safely secure with its overall majority, with no need to worry about its happily forgotten coalition partners.

Some of the new policies have got into the national media, especially the cuts in support for solar power with layoffs for thousands of industry staff. But others are rather more subtle. They include a further £1 billion of subsidies for North Sea oil while excluding onshore windfarms from a subsidy scheme from April 2016. The changes also entail reduced incentives for low-emission vehicles, the scrapping of the "green deal" in support of energy-efficient homes, privatisation of the Green Bank, and a year's delay for a new tidal-power scheme in Wales.

Perhaps the most marked change of all, hardly noticed outside the building industry, is the scrapping of the "zero carbon homes" plan. Under it, all new homes from 2016 were meant to be carbon-neutral. It was seen as a change that would have had a steady cumulative effect and would also have done much to change the psychology of home ownership, whereby homeowners are motivated to upgrade their houses and thus also increase their value, sustainability, and sales potential.

So in the current spate of floods across northern England and elsewhere, look no further to understand why no UK government representative makes any connection with climate change. In the view of the government there can be no such connection - and that situation may well endure, until the moment that Westminster itself floods.

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