Flooding & political negligence

Climate change denial

Well before 1992, it had become obvious that artificial global warming was underway, as a result of the emission of large amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and the ozone-depleting substances known as CFCs.  It was equally obvious that this must raise sea levels (because water expands and ice melts), that it must increase storminess (because warm seas provide energy and water for storms), and that it must change weather on land (because of the uptake of heat and water from the warming sea by moving air).

In 1992, the governments of the world attended the Rio conference on the global environment.  There they were informed by the first major reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was set up in 1988 to evaluate the evidence and risks.  From 1992 onward, it’s hard to think of a credible reason for any national leader to claim ignorance of the basic facts and mechanisms of climate change.

The precise details of what will happen in any given place over any given period were not known, however, and still aren’t, and perhaps never can be, because of the complexity and turbulence of climate systems. This uncertainty was exploited by many ‘leaders’ as a reason to postpone action, and headed off even the simplest precautionary measures, which might have helped reduce impacts if the climate scientists happened to be correct.

The resulting inaction, while the IPCC produced further reports (in 1995, 2001 and 2007) to confirm and deepen our understanding of the emerging crisis, can only be described as political negligence.  The story of those years is a grim one, as governments, companies and citizens collaborated in burning as much of their forests and as many tonnes of fossil fuel as they could, and mostly took no measures whatsoever to reduce emissions or prepare for the inevitable consequences of increased storminess and sea-level rise.

Britain was no real exception, despite our government’s occasional effective measures (such as closing the coal mines, though done for political not environmental reasons), and a starring role in international rhetoric.

Flooding in England

By global standards, England is a smallish geographical unit with short rivers and small catchments, and a moderate rainfall.  Flooding therefore would be expected to happen only occasionally, and locally, as a result of exceptionally intense rainfall.  Intense rainfall, though, is exactly what global warming is likely to produce here in this maritime island, so our government knew, or should have known, since at least 1992, that we would become more flood-prone.

During the years of climate-change denial, however, the governments, companies and citizens of this country did exactly the opposite of what they should have done.  We collaborated in massively reducing the landscape’s capacity to absorb water, by covering large areas in tarmac and concrete, even to the extent of allowing individuals to pave their gardens in towns.  Rivers were straightened and canalised, so flood peaks would move faster and flooding rivers would have nowhere to go except up and over their concrete banks, and vast numbers of buildings were put up on floodplains.

These efforts simultaneously reduced the rate at which rain would have to fall in order to create a flood, and ensured that any flood would cause maximum damage to life and property.  Meanwhile, neither the UK nor any other government did anything significant to reduce carbon emissions, so global warming continued, the atmosphere became warmer, wetter and more turbulent, and the tendency towards storminess grew.  On an imaginary graph, the lines of flood vulnerability and storminess for England intersected in June and July 2007, as the lakes of river-water and sewage in our heartlands now stand witness.

No-one could have said in 1992 that 2007 was going to be the moment, but a lot of people did say in 1992, and before, and in every year since, that the early 21st century was when things would start getting out of hand.  They did, and tens, perhaps hundreds, of billions of pounds have been wiped off the value of England’s property in a few days.  And yes, the ‘gummint’s ter blame’, as much as anyone, for their gross failure of leadership and their lack of precaution.

Perhaps we should all be thinking about the point at which political negligence becomes criminal negligence.