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8 December 2015

Climate change means more “extreme“ weather than Storm Desmond is on the way

Storm Desmond's record rainfall shows that the time to tackle climate change is now.

By India Bourke

This weekend, as storm clouds loomed, schools shut, and the military poured into cities awash with water, the Conservative party held fast to a familiarly defensive position, summed up by Environment Minister Rory Stewart’s assertion: “This is an extreme and very unprecedented event.”

Such language paints the weekend’s floods as an unfortunate one-off; an unpredictable but excusable whim of Mother Nature. In fact, experts say, such events are anything but. Rather they are man-made and set to become ever more frequent.

After the flooding of 2013/14, an article in The Times drew on research by the University of Southampton to place the blame on urbanisation. This argued that while the number of annual flood events may have increased, so has our population – and with it the volume of paved-over floodplains, deforested uplands, intensive farming, and degraded soils.

However, Dame Julia Slingo, chief scientist at the Met Office, has linked the record rainfall to an even more troubling (and expensive) trend: climate change. Although declining to comment on the specifics of Storm Desmond, her statement for the Met Office news blog made it clear that, “all the evidence from fundamental physics, and our understanding of our weather systems, suggests there may be a link between climate change and record breaking winter rainfall”.

This is something academics and environmental campaigners, such as Guy Shrubsole from Friends of the Earth, have been predicting for years: “As climate negotiators fiddle in Paris, Britain floods. Climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme rainfall and floods in Britain and around the world,”Shrubsole said

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Shrubsole’s concerns are backed up by science. After the storms of 2013/14, researchers studied winters with similar conditions and found evidence to suggest that extreme rain events are seven times more likely than on a planet which is not experiencing global warming. Another study concluded that, if emissions stay high, wet UK winters would be 25 per cent more likely.

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Yesterday, after being reminded of such findings, the government eventually conceded that Storm Desmond would have to be reviewed within the context of climate change and it’s long term impact on Britain’s weather. Liz Truss, the Environment Secretary, acknowledged that the extreme weather was “consistent with the trends we’re seeing in terms of climate change” and that the department would review its models to ensure they were fit for future purpose.

Such recognition could not have come a moment too soon. When the Energy Secretary Amber Rudd leads UK negotiations in Paris this week, she will come face-to-face with representatives from countries where increasingly extreme weather has caused incomparable suffering: 340,000 were left homeless after heavy floods in Jakarta last year; millions in East Africa are wracked by a drought exacerbated by climate change.

Fully recognising the link between extreme weather and climate change will of course be costly – precipitating further spending at home and on aid abroad  but it is perhaps increasingly unavoidable.

In the UK, the government is already being attacked for failing to adequately prepare the nation’s flood defences. Despite promises to protect an additional 300,000 homes by 2021, critics say the £2.3bn of allocated spending was too little, too late. According to Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, nearly 300 defence schemes have been shelved in recent years.

Storm Desmond has forced the government to “look again” at its flood defence plans. Yet unless we face the reality of a climate-altered future with a wide range of solutions, Britain might not only be embarrassed in Paris but also washed up at home.