Crashing waves. Sandbags. Sodden clothes, carpets and furniture. Murky water, everywhere. Flooding is devastating, a traumatic experience for anyone affected, something that takes months to recover from.
The East Coast is still reeling from the worst storm surge in 60 years, with water levels reaching new records in certain parts of country – topping 5.8 metres in Hull, for example. Hundreds of people have been evacuated from their homes. At one point, the Environment Agency had 56 severe flood warnings in force along almost the entire UK Eastern seaboard.
The immediate response from the Environment Agency, emergency services and communities affected appears to have been exemplary, and a testament to how crucial it is to have strong defences and emergency plans in place. The 1953 storm surge that similarly hit huge parts of the East coast was far more immediately devastating, leading to 300 deaths. That such figures have been mercifully avoided this time around underlines the vital importance of keeping up the flood defences that have been put in place since then.
What is unforgiveable is the government’s careless approach to the risk of increased flooding in future. Its own Climate Change Risk Assessment is clear: “floods and coastal erosion are already serious risks in the UK, and they are projected to increase as a result of climate change.” And yet the coalition is presiding over a real-terms cut in flood defence spending over this Parliament, and introducing a flood insurance scheme that explicitly excludes consideration of climate change as a key contributor to future flooding.
Let’s be clear: no one is claiming that specific flood events are the ‘result’ of climate change. It’s a question of increased risk. Rising sea levels, for example, lead to greater risk of extreme surge events overtopping flood defences. Wetter winters lead to greater risk of big downpours and flash flooding.
But the government appears not to have grasped the concept of risk at all well. Flood insurance is, of course, meant to give protection to homes against a particular likelihood of flooding happening in the future. Yet Defra’s Impact Assessment for its flood insurance plans “assumes that flood risk remains the same over time. [The modelling] does not… take account of changing flood risk due to deterioration of existing flood defences, climate change or development in flood risk areas.” In other words, the government’s baseline scenario assumes climate change is not happening, in the face of all the evidence.
Why on earth has this happened? It appears that Defra have made a number of manifestly unreasonable assumptions. Its climate projections state that between 475,000 and 825,000 homes will be put at significant risk of flooding in the 2020s, as against 370,000 now – and that figure rises to a maximum of 970,000 properties with high population growth. But in its Impact Assessment, it dismisses these projections, claiming “there is too much uncertainty around [the] figures” and that “they should not be used for policy purposes”. This is a basic failure to understand systemic risk. Of course there’s uncertainty on the specifics – but the direction of travel is clear. The risk is getting worse.
Worse still, Defra claims “as a working hypothesis” that “the effects of climate change and investments in flood defences are broadly offsetting.” It is demonstrably not the case that current investments in flood defences are at a sufficient level to offset the effects of climate change on flooding. The government Foresight Programme and Environment Agency both recommend that flood defence spending needs to rise by £20m, year-on-year and on top of inflation out to 2035, just to keep pace with climate change. Yet the coalition has presided over a real-terms cut to flood defence spending. In other words, politicians are not doing nearly enough to protect households from the very real risks of climate change impacts.
There is a better way. A small committee of MPs is currently scrutinising the government’s flood insurance plans. Amongst them are MPs representing constituencies affected by this week’s floods, such as Andrew Percy, Conservative member for Brigg and Goole along the Humber. It is within these politicians’ power to amend the government’s flood plans for the better.
MPs should require the Environment Secretary to take account of climate change when setting out how many homes will benefit from the flood insurance scheme. After the flood waters recede and people return to repair their homes, it is the least politicians can do to offer British households some comfort that they will continue to be insured against these risks in future.
David Cameron might wish to reflect, too, on whether it is really so wise to have put Owen Paterson, a climate change sceptic, in charge of protecting the country against climate change risks. His mind might turn to his party’s ongoing support for fracking and fossil fuel tax breaks, only adding to the problem of climate change. And he might like to mull his recent words spoken in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, and consider how relevant they also are to Britain: “If I said to you there’s a 60% chance your house might burn down… you take out some insurance. I think we should think about climate change like that.”