David Cameron sparked a storm at last week's PMQs when he stated he "very much suspects" that there is a link between climate change and increasingly abnormal weather events. Despite the efforts of some sceptics to pick holes in that assertion, Met Office scientists have since vindicated the Prime Minister.
Much less reported - but much more significant - was Cameron's commitment to undertake a review of flooding and climate change:
Ed Miliband: "Given the scale of risk exposed by these floods and the expected impact of climate change, will the Prime Minister also commit to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [Defra] providing a report by the end of this month, providing a full assessment of the future capability of our flood defences and flood response agencies and of whether the investment plans in place are equal to the need for events of this kind?"
The Prime Minister: "I am very happy to make that commitment."
Owen Paterson must be cursing. It seems likely that the beleaguered Environment Secretary would have rather got away with a cursory, self-congratulatory survey of his department's handling of the winter floods, focusing on the number of times he has chaired COBRA emergency meetings and stomped about in welly boots. Given his past statements about climate change - and how he has carefully ignored questions probing his opinions on the matter in recent weeks - we can be sure he would rather not engage with the underlying drivers of future flooding. But that is precisely what Cameron's commitment binds him into examining, and he must be held to this.
Defra's flooding review must, as a matter of national urgency, take stock of the country's preparedness for worsening flooding in future. As Defra's own risk assessment states, "floods and coastal erosion are already serious risks in the UK, and they are projected to increase as a result of climate change." Indeed, the government projects that the number of homes at serious flood risk could increase from around 370,000 now to almost 1 million by the 2020s, thanks to climate change and population growth. Opinion polling carried out by the Environment Department shows that 80% of the public understand flooding will increase in future and are concerned about it.
Up till now, Messrs Cameron and Paterson have sought to deflect criticism away from the coalition's flooding policy by claiming that "this Government will be spending more on flood defences in the course of these four years than any preceding Government." But however you add up the figures or spin the data, the truth is the coalition government chose to cut flood defence spending. The coalition committed fewer funds each year to flood defences in its 2011-2015 Spending Review than the last government did in its 2007-11 Spending Review. Osborne's Spending Review resulted in a 10% cut to defences, which represents a much bigger cut taking into account inflation.
But even if the government's claims were true, doing more than the last lot would be no reason to rest on your laurels. As Churchill once famously remarked, "Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required." And climate change imposes a punishing logic on flood preparedness, requiring increasing amounts of investment to be committed just to keep the same number of households protected. A decade ago, Sir David King - then the government's Chief Scientific Advisor, now the coalition's climate envoy - warned that investment would need to ramp up for decades to keep pace with increasing flood risk. The Environment Agency's long-term investment plan calls for investments in flood defences of £20m more per year, on top of inflation, every year out to 2035. It would be extremely helpful if Paterson's flooding review explained how the coalition's real-terms cuts to flood defences square with this requirement.
In numerous other regards, the coalition has unforgivably weakened Britain's preparedness for climate change. A "full assessment of the future capability of our flood defences and flood response agencies", as signed up to by the PM, will need to address the following at minimum:
· The government's flood insurance scheme, Flood Re, fails to factor in climate change to its consideration of future flood risk.
· Proposed 15% budget cuts to the Environment Agency mean over 550 staff working on flooding are earmarked to be sacked, and the EA's Chief Executive Paul Leinster has warned that the cuts will inevitably impact on flood preparedness.
· The coalition removed the duty on Local Authorities to produce climate adaptation plans in 2010 - which, together with huge cuts to council budgets, has led to numerous Local Authorities ditching staff working on climate change preparedness and letting their plans gather dust.
· The government's Climate Change Risk Assessment makes preparations for a world that experiences medium levels of emissions and 2 degrees of global warming. But the world remains on a high-emissions pathway. We must do everything we can to avert this, but even so, it would be prudent to plan for the worst as well as hoping for the best. What preparations has the government made for how Britain will cope in a 4-degree world?
There's then the small matter that Defra's own climate adaptation team has been slashed from 38 officials to just six last year. It's doubtful whether this overworked skeleton staff has the capacity to undertake a serious review of Britain's flood preparedness. Better, surely, would be for Defra to obtain an independent report from the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change, which has a statutory duty to advise on this subject anyway. Officials working on climate change at the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office (including Sir David King) should also be consulted, not least because of their understanding of managing risk.
Cameron's flooding review is a test of the government's willingness to seriously prepare the country for the impacts of climate change. When Churchill warned of the threats facing the country in the 1930s, he called those years "the locust years", since they should have been spent preparing but instead were fruitlessly eaten up. Will the coalition's lack of preparations for climate change be similarly viewed?