- Environmental management lecturer Dr Julia Meaton on the need for a longer-term national policy on flooding following unseasonal rainfall.
“The Environment Agency officially identifies over 5 million people living or working in properties that are at risk of flooding. During the last few days it may well seem that many more of us have cause for concern as we witness record unseasonal rainfall causing chaos around us. Certainly many more of us are aware of the threat to our own properties and there are increasing numbers of people being flooded in areas where it has never happened before. The annual cost of flood damage is predicted to rise from £1bn in 2004 to £21bn later this century if climate change is not tackled. And yes, much of this flooding is related to climate change, something that many people and politicians still want to deny, or at least ignore. A report published in Nature in 2010 found that global warming made the floods that happened in the UK in the autumn of 2000 between two and three times more likely, with the authors concluding that climate change is ‘acting here and now to load the dice towards more extreme weather’. Since greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, and given the time-lag between emissions and impacts, it is highly likely that ‘we ain’t seen nothing yet’ and that extreme weather will become more frequent and more damaging, and that many more of us in the affluent global north will start to feel the direct impact of climate change in our lives.
That doesn’t help all the people who have been flooded during the last few days, or the 200,000 households that will face problems insuring their houses in the future. However, this understanding could mean that we start looking at the problem in a different way. An optimistic outlook might see us understanding linkages and causes so that we more readily accept unpopular yet climate friendly policies – such as fuel taxes! It might even mean that big polluters are more at risk of lawsuits and so start to be more proactive in their sustainability efforts. On a practical level it means looking at a broader range of policies. Maybe we should accept that some homes will be flooded and rather than paying vast sums on flood defences, we should redesign vulnerable properties so they are more resilient to flooding so that damage is minimised. New buildings should have this built in, and of course, we would need to look again at the issues of building on known flood-prone areas. The role of the community in developing community flood plans has already been acknowledged, but broader community engagement is required so that all sectors of society are represented and have a say in developing local resilience. Different models of insurance may need to emerge, with government, or even big polluting corporations, supporting those households and businesses exposed to flood impacts so that they alone do not have to shoulder the burden.
Whether some or all or other policies emerge for dealing with the threat, accepting the inevitability of future flood damage is crucial. We should no longer be surprised at these ‘uncharacteristic’ downfalls. They will be part of our weather from now onwards, whatever we do nationally or internationally with regard to greenhouse gas emissions. It may also be a time, while we are moaning about the ruined summer, the cancelled concerts and sporting events, to reflect that although UK flooding causes terrible upheaval and unfair financial burdens, at least we do not experience the loss of lives and livelihoods they cause in less prosperous, less resilient and less climate change culpable nations.”
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