For the past week wellies have been the shoe-wear of choice in our neighbourhood. But this has been an exceptional week. Or has it? My wife, Eve, two small kids and I have been forced to leave our home by the floods that hit central Oxford. Floods of this scale are meant to happen once every 100 years. Yet this is the third (and highest) such flood in six years.
We call a houseboat home and the unprecedented river levels meant our front path turned into a chest-high river. Whilst our home simply rose with the water, getting the children on and off didn’t feel safe. We decided to find steadier accommodation. After a string of emails and Facebook posts to friends and family we managed to coordinate a series of three homes we could ‘sit’ while their occupants were away. For the children an exciting adventure has turned into repeated cries of ‘I want to go home’, interspersed by repeated packing and unpacking. For Eve and I life seems to be on hold, living out of bags and constantly unsettled.
When I spoke to my neighbours living on the adjacent estate of council housing, our relocation seemed relatively easy. Their lives have been massively disrupted. Sandbags lined the entrance to dozens of houses, many of which had pumps working day and night to keep the water from rising into their rooms. Families in the area were unable to use their toilets or have a shower for days because the flood waters had blocked the drains. Portaloos were brought in by the council.
Two of the main roads that run into the city, and bisect the community, were closed off as they were under water, creating a disconcerting calmness in an area normally full of traffic. The local school and nursery was closed, many people couldn’t get to work. A vibrant urban community had been turned on it’s head.
Everyone I spoke with said this was the worst flood ever to hit the area. Dot, who had lived in the same house for 80 years, agreed she’d never seen anything like it. Young and old all said it was making life very difficult and that these events were becoming more common.
When I looked at the newspapers, vast swathes of the USA were suffering from some of the coldest weather on record, whilst in Scandinavia the winter has been unusually warm.
For me this experience and the extreme weather around the world fits the pattern predicted by climate change. But I seemed disconcertingly alone in saying this out loud. I interviewed local people, some of whom saw a clear connection, but many of whom didn’t. Flooding seemed to be the only topic on the local BBC radio station but climate change was never mentioned, the ‘Greenest Government ever’ struggled to be clear on the link and meteorologists appeared to be uncertain as to whether there was a connection when asked - only belatedly agreeing there was. Not even the environmental charities or Green Party focused on the link. A climate silence does appear to have taken over.
How different to the previous record flood in Oxford during the summer of 2007. Similar events took place and were met by climate change headlines in the media, climate change statements by politicians of all hues and community marches demanding climate action.
This worries me deeply as I believe the world’s scientists when they say climate change is a real and a very pressing global threat on a magnitude that dwarfs anything else we have seen. But it makes me ask why this is the case. Why is there a climate silence?
Many will say it is vested interests promoting skeptical voices and pseudo science to prevent real and meaningful climate action in the same way as the tobacco industry for years successfully sowed doubt and fought off legislation around smoking. Undoubtedly there is a large element of truth in this and I strongly believe we need to counter these efforts. But having spent years working with young people from very mixed backgrounds around these issues it seems to me that this is only one explanation.
Climate change has become a polarising issue, up there with politics and religion as not being fit for discussion in polite company. It is largely accepted that on the right of politics, climate change is a toxic issue. But climate silence has even permeated even traditional advocates.
During the floods I met up with friends who fit firmly within the environmentalist label. Whilst they recognised that climate change was a massive issue and many had campaigned on climate change in the past, none of them when asked said they discussed, let alone campaigned on, it now. Reasons for this included ‘it’s depressing’ and ‘we can’t fix it’ countering instead that they were putting their efforts into community based projects. Whilst I see these as very worthwhile I suggested that ignoring climate change won’t fix a problem that could override all their admirable work.
To generate the local, national and international action necessary to tackle the issue we need to break this deadlock. We need to ensure people can relate to climate change, that they see it as an issue that is relevant to them, that they can see a positive future in which we can all participate.
Climate change needs to move into the collective morals of populations in the same way as the NHS is, or free education. Trying to undermine these national treasures is akin to political or social suicide in most situations.
Our challenge is to break the climate silence, and generate the same level of societal support for climate change on an ongoing basis. We need to connect to people’s morals and sense of justice by building empowering narratives and frames, climate stories, that work for all.
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