Sodden Britain ready to face climate change?

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 12 February 2014 17:01 GMT

A man ferries a local resident by boat through the flooded central square in the village of Datchet in Berkshire, southern England February 12, 2014. REUTERS/Kieran Doherty

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Could floods drive a policy rethink in the UK?

In a busy world, it’s easy to think about climate change as a far-away problem – one there’s still time to work on later, that’s happening far away from where we live, that will affect our children or grandchildren but not us.

That’s gotten a little harder in the United Kingdom this past month, as the heaviest winter rain in more than 250 years has lashed the country into a sodden, leaking mess, and moved worries about extreme weather right up the list.

Thousands of homes have gone underwater across the country – some of them for the first time in memory. Thousands more families have been evacuated, and the number is expected to rise with extreme winds and more rain in the forecast. At least one person has died.

Heavy seas have washed away the main railroad link to Cornwall, in England’s southwest, and other rail lines are delayed or at risk of flooding. Power outages are growing. Roofers are awash with calls from families frantic about water leaking in through saturated and wind-buffeted roofs and walls.

How bad is it? Politicians in wading boots are flooding into the wet zones faster than the floodwaters, most of them eager to blame someone else for lack of spending on flood defenses,  failure to dredge rivers, cuts in emergency planning budgets or what underwater homeowners charge is pitifully slow government response to the rising waters.

Prime Minister David Cameron has promised that “money is no object” to fund flood relief for the weather’s victims. What we haven’t heard yet – and are unlikely to, at least for a while – is what needs to come after the sandbags and rescue boats and insurance checks.

The truth is, climate change – and the extreme weather it is increasingly bringing – is here, now, and it will require some hard choices to address effectively.

 HARD CHOICES AHEAD                               

That means, for instance, changing the country’s regulations to ensure homes – particularly low-cost ones – don’t continue to be built on floodplains, putting families at risk. It means taking a hard look at how the UK subsidises insurance for flood-prone properties by putting a levy on all homeowners – which makes it easier to families to stay in often charming but increasingly hard-to-defend homes along erosion-prone seas and flood-prone rivers.

The high cost of flood defenses may mean it will no longer be cost effective to protect part of the UK’s farmland from rising seas and more intense storms. Railroads and roads may need to be moved inland, away from eroding coastlines, or built higher to stay above more frequent floods, all at great cost.

Just as important, worsening extreme weather and other climate-related changes mean the country needs to do something about climate change itself, before the problems get too big to handle. That means investing more – not less – in clean, renewable energy, and setting ambitious targets to reduce the UK’s climate changing emissions, both as a planning signal for businesses and to help press other countries to do the same.

It means talking about climate change as a problem to deal with now – not in some distant political cycle. And it means spending now on effective means to reduce the country’s growing climate risks, rather than pushing off the ever heavier risks onto future families, future budgets and future leaders.

Extreme weather hasn’t necessarily brought about sea changes in attitude in other countries. The United States was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, as well as by worsening droughts, floods, fires and tornados, and it is still home to a shrill climate change denial movement and determined pushback from legislators against President Obama’s efforts to push through action on climate change by executive order.

But there are a few hopeful signs that things may be beginning to shift in the UK.

The Church of England has said it will review whether investing some of its 8 billion pounds in assets in fossil fuels remains an ethical choice. An array of government ministers and officials are now thinking actively about the country’s flood defenses and what needs to be done to avoid another flood like this one. Could that lead to the restoration of some of the massive budget cuts for climate adaptation planning made by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson in 2012?

“I don’t think we can take this as a one-off event,” Patrick McLoughlin, the UK’s transport secretary, warned on BBC radio Tuesday.

Most important, a growing share of Britons now feel in their gut – and their wet socks – that climate change is not a fantasy, a distant threat or something that can be put off dealing with just a little longer, but a sodden, expensive, inconvenient  reality that is swirling into more and more homes and lives.

That recognition, more than anything else, could help drive the policy changes the country needs.

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