Thanks for wading in, Mr Cameron - now this is what you need to do about flooding

The Prime Minister needs to reverse the foolish decisions his government has taken on flood defences.

As the Christmas floods continued, it was inevitable that at some point the Prime Minister would pull on his gumboots and go visit a flood-struck town. It was equally inevitable that - in a moment of life imitating art - he would be confronted, like an episode from The Thick Of It, by angry residents fed up at being ignored for so long by the authorities.

The press snickered at Cameron's red-faced apologies and hasty pledges of more support, but in reality there is little that even the PM can do to help with an emergency clean-up. No, the true measure of whether a politician is fit to deal with emergencies is whether they act to make the next one less likely.

Indeed, as Cameron said on Friday, "these events are happening more often". One might almost infer - perish the thought! - that the climate is changing. So, then: is the PM going to stick to his pledge to make flooding "a bigger priority for the government"? If he is, that is very welcome news. But to do so, he will first need to reverse a string of very foolish decisions his administration has taken that make Britain less prepared for increased flooding in future. Let's examine those decisions:

1. The coalition is responsible for a real-terms cut in spending on flood defences, when the Environment Agency says we need to be investing £20m more each year, on top of inflation, to keep pace with increased flooding due to climate change. On Friday, Cameron tried to claim that his government "is spending more on flood defences over the next four years than over the last four years." This is simply not true: however you spin the figures, they don't keep pace with inflation, and certainly don't keep pace with increasing flood risk. Cutting flood defence spending is a total false economy: every £1 spent on defences is worth £8 in avoided costs.

2. In 2014, the government is cutting the Environment Agency's budget by 15%, with 550 staff working on flooding earmarked to be sacked. So when the Prime Minister tweeted, "An enormous thank you to the @EnvAgency... who are doing an amazing job with the floods and extreme weather", it rang hollow. Farming groups have warned the cuts will increase flood risks; they have to be halted.

3. The government's new flood insurance plan fails to factor in how climate change will increase the risk of future flooding - potentially leaving half a million households outside the scheme and facing higher insurance costs.

4. Councils no longer have to prepare for the impacts of climate change - Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, scrapped this obligation in 2010. So much for Cameron's recent tweet, stating that he has "asked the Dept for Communities & Local Govt to ensure councils have robust plans in case of bad weather and flooding over New Year." Talk about closing the stable door once the horse has bolted...

5. The minister that David Cameron appointed to protect the country from the impacts of climate change, Owen Paterson, doubts that climate change is happening, hasn't bothered to get briefed on it by his scientists, and says it's not all bad anyway.  Paterson probably has fun cultivating his image as a green-baiting contrarian, but given the impact of increasing flooding on rural communities and farmers, the laughter's wearing pretty thin. Time for a new Secretary of State better suited to the task.

6. Defra's team working on climate change adaptation has been slashed this year from 38 officials to just six. If resilience to flooding isn't a priority at the centre of government, why should it be something local authorities take seriously?

And that's just for starters. If Cameron is to be able to look flood-stricken householders in the eye in future and say he's doing all he can to help them, he needs to reverse these foolish decisions, and fast. And he needs to remember the old adage, that prevention is better than cure. The best insurance we have against increased flooding in future is to tackle the pollution causing climate change in the first place.

David Cameron talks with residents and environment agency workers in the village of Yalding during a visit on December 27, 2013 in Yalding. Photograph: Getty Images.

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.