Flooded out: Blackett Close in Staines-Upon-Thames. Photo: Getty
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Leader: As this winter’s floods remind us, climate change matters

In the short term, ministers will rightly focus on addressing the immediate threat to homes and lives. Once this danger has passed, we all have a duty to ensure that the UK is better able to live with and withstand the consequences of climate change.

In recent times, our political leaders have given the impression that they regard climate change as a matter of marginal importance. When David Cameron was first elected as leader of the Conservative Party, he used to claim that to “vote blue” was to “go green”. He now reportedly vows to “get rid of all the green crap”. Nearly four years after entering Downing Street, the Prime Minister has yet to make a major speech about climate change or attend a UN environmental summit.

Emboldened by his silence, Conservative climate-change deniers have rushed to fill the void. The energy minister Michael Fallon has compared global warming to “theology” and the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, has declared: “People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries.” (Nine of the ten warmest years have occurred since 1998.)

For his part, the Chancellor, George Osborne, encouraged by his intellectual mentor Nigel Lawson, has repeatedly posited a false choice between growth and green investment, clumsily arguing that saving the planet “shouldn’t cost the earth”. Even Ed Miliband, a former climate change secretary and a committed environmentalist, now rarely mentions the subject in his speeches and interventions. The common view in Westminster is that it is not a priority in an era of squeezed living standards.

Yet, as the Met Office’s chief scientist, Julia Slingo, said of the extreme weather that has caused the floods in the south of England, “All the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change. There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”

Politicians cannot control the weather but this banality should not obscure the fundamental truth that the decisions they have taken have left Britain less prepared than it should be. Against the advice of scientists, who warned of the increased risk of flooding because of climate change, the government has cut real-terms spending on flood defences every year since 2010. This year, it will reduce the budget for the Environment Agency by 15 per cent and remove 550 staff working on flooding. Over the same period, it has ended the obligation for local authorities to prepare climate adaptation plans and has cut the number of officials responsible for the issue in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 38 to just six. All of these decisions were justified under the government’s deficit-reduction plan, but as Mr Cameron’s surprise declaration that “money is no object” (isn’t Britain “bankrupt”?) demonstrates, they have proved to be a false economy.

In the short term, ministers will rightly focus on addressing the immediate threat to homes and lives. Once this danger has passed, we all have a duty to ensure that the UK is better able to live with and withstand the consequences of climate change. Within the next decade, the UK faces the prospect of food shortages, more floods, extreme heatwaves and mass refugee flows. As the events of recent days show, a strategy for managing climate change is also a strategy for defending living standards.
 

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.