I’m sure the families clearing up after the Christmas and New Year floods have neither the time nor inclination to wonder if the floods were caused by climate change or not. Nevertheless the question has come up, as it inevitably seems to every time there is an extreme weather event nowadays.
So, let’s look at the facts. Met Office data shows that four out of the five wettest years on record have been since year 2000. Official reports have repeatedly warned that the risk of flooding is becoming worse because of global warming. The Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Climate Change Risk Assessment warns ‘floods and coastal erosion are already serious risks in the UK, and they are projected to increase as a result of climate change’. The classic study on the link between flooding and climate change by Myles Allen and others at Oxford University states that the likelihood of the floods in the year 2000 may have been doubled by rising greenhouse gas emissions. Even David Cameron has admitted ‘most people accept that, with climate change, [flooding events] are likely to be more frequent’.
The problem is we can’t blame one single event on climate change, as this brilliant Armstrong and Miller sketch illustrates. We can, however, point to other factors.
The population of the South East is rising and that means more building on floodplains – often against Environment Agency advice. More than 5.5 million, or one in six, properties in England and Wales are at risk from flooding. Even if we take climate change out of the equation more needs to be done to protect vulnerable homes. This can be achieved. Hell, London is on one big floodplain and we get around it by building the Thames Barrier. The question is are we investing enough in other areas?
The Prime Minister insists his Government is spending more on flood defence than in the previous four years. Defra will spend about £2.3bn on coastal erosion and flood risk management in the current spending period from 2011/12 to 2014/15. This sounds impressive but it’s not just about building big sexy barrages, it’s about mud and paperwork.
While flood defences are being built, farmers complain that money for basic maintenance like dredging is being cut. Insurance schemes seem like a good plan but the Government’s Flood Re scheme has been widely criticised for failing to protect the most vulnerable properties and take into account climate change. In the long term things are not looking good, the Commons environment committee think capital investment from all sources must be increased by £20m year on year for 25 years to keep pace with threats due to climate and demographic changes’.
Labour questions the Government’s presentation of the figures, insisting that spending on flood defence represents a 20 per cent reduction in real terms compared to the previous four years. Friends of the Earth say more than 500 people who could be helping the vulnerable cope with floods are being sacked.
It’s not just environmental groups and the Opposition who are angry. Erica Olivares gave David Cameron a hard time when he came to visit her flooded home in Yalding Kent for failing to ensure the village was prepared and protected. She’s right. You can’t blame a single event on climate change but you can blame your elected representatives for failing to minimise the risk.