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Protecting farms or front rooms? The impossible dilemma that climate change forces upon us

We need a concerted national debate about how we best protect ourselves from increasingly extreme weather.

The sun sets over a flooded field surrounding the River Tone that has burst its banks on the Somerset Levels. Photograph: Getty Images.

At last, someone has said it. Chris Smith, chair of the Environment Agency, wrote in the Telegraph of the impossible dilemma facing Britain as climate change leads to ever-worsening flooding:

"…This involves tricky issues of policy and priority: town or country, front rooms or farmland? Flood defences cost money; and how much should the taxpayer be prepared to spend on different places, communities and livelihoods – in Somerset, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, or East Anglia? There’s no bottomless purse, and we need to make difficult but sensible choices about where and what we try to protect."

Smith’s words go to the heart of the challenge climate change poses to these shores. Do we continue to defend all parts of the country against rising sea levels and increasing floods – or abandon whole swathes of low-lying land to its fate? This vexed, heartrending conundrum ought to be one of the biggest issues in British politics. Yet it is barely spoken about in Westminster.

The scientists and engineers facing up to the problem are far less circumspect. "Retreat is the only sensible policy," says Colin Thorne, professor of physical geography at Nottingham University and respected flooding expert. "If we fight nature, we will lose in the end… Can the Somerset Levels be defended between now and the end of the century? No."

The thousands of farmers and households living on the Somerset Levels might reasonably beg to differ. But, outside of the recent horrendous flooding, when has this question ever been debated in public? The MP for part of the Levels, Ian Liddell-Granger, has talked endlessly about dredging in Parliament; but not once, as far as I am aware, seriously discussed the long-term future of his constituents in the face of climate change. North-East Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, seems more interested in having a pop at the Environment Agency than working out how to manage increasingly torrential rainfall in his area. Both are doing their constituents a considerable disservice. 

Or take the city of Hull. It is one of the cities most at risk from flooding in Britain, being situated on low-lying land near to the mouth of the river Humber. When the worst storm surge to hit Britain in sixty years threatened Hull in December, its sea defences mercifully held, despite the waters rising to record levels. But what of its longer-term prospects, as sea levels are projected to rise by up to a metre over the next century? A report by the Institute of Chartered Engineers (ICE) in 2010 outlined the options as being, starkly, "retreat, defend or attack". The "retreat" option sees Hull retreat from its existing sea-front on the Humber, with the old city centre becoming an island. Whether or not you see this as a more realistic or desirable option than continuing to defend the whole city, the challenge remains – with remarkably little said about it in public.

Mind you, the government has been aware of these challenges for quite some time. As far back as 1989, when climate change first registered as an issue in Westminster, a government-funded research council published a report entitled Climatic Change, Rising Sea Level and the British Coast. Alongside some alarming maps showing the great tracts of land at risk from rising sea-levels, the study concluded: “Various options for sea defence and coastal protection would have to be considered [due to global warming], including raising the existing sea walls, building new walls further inland… and even abandoning whole sections of coast.”

Defra’s most recent Climate Change Risk Assessment is scarcely less alarming: it projects that a million more people will be at significant flood risk by the 2020s. The independent Committee on Climate Change has warned that a half-billion pound gap has emerged between flood defence spending and what needs to be invested to keep pace with climate change. With stats like these, we need a concerted national debate about how we best protect ourselves from increasingly extreme weather.

The failure of politicians to consider this threat is a dereliction of the state’s most basic duties towards protecting its citizens. In the face of invading armies, the response is always adamant: "We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be", as Churchill famously said. But faced with a very different, yet no less insidious threat to our territorial integrity, our leaders seem to find it harder to grasp an adequate response.

After all, you can’t see off climate change with bombs and guns. Instead, politicians have to accept the dreadful challenge put forward by Smith: that of making "difficult but sensible choices". The most sensible choice of all, of course, would be to avoid the worst excesses of climate change in the first place - cutting carbon emissions and leading the charge for a global climate agreement. But for a government that has cut flood defence spending, excluded climate change from its flood insurance scheme and appointed a climate sceptic as Environment Secretary, making sensible decisions currently seems too much to ask.