It tends to be assumed that, whatever the consequences of climate change, they will most likely be felt by someone else, somewhere else. But in recent weeks, many people across Britain have found the effects of extreme weather and a changing climate to be all too real.
The damage wrought on communities across northern England, Scotland and Wales by flooding over the past month has been devastating. And while politicians have described the weather conditions that led to this destruction as ‘unprecedented’, these floods didn’t happen by chance. According to the UK’s leading flood research body, recent extreme rainfall is strongly linked with a changing climate.
The financial cost to homes, buildings and businesses will reach into the millions. But the impact of having the places you live and love disappear underwater is beyond calculation. Take, for example, Pooley Bridge in Ullswater. It had stood proudly over the river Eamont in Cumbria since 1764 until – in the same week world leaders gathered in Paris to thrash out a global deal on climate change – it was washed away by Storm Desmond.
This should focus our minds, especially following the successful conclusion of the Paris talks. For while international agreements provide a crucial framework, they don’t do anything on their own. It’s up to us to make them real: we have to take local action now.
First this means we need to build the defences and infrastructure to protect our towns and cities. This year’s flooding is not a one off. Fourteen of the fifteen hottest years on record have come this century. Four of the five years of heaviest rainfall have happened in the past five years. So we need to ensure our places and communities are resilient; that is, they have the ability “not only to resist and recover from adverse shocks, but also to “bounce back” stronger than before, and to learn from the experience”.
The decline of local ecosystems due to human activity – such as reclaiming of wetlands, deforestation and road construction – threatens our ability to provide essential flood management; especially when coupled with increased rainfall due to a changing climate. Our current defences are simply not equipped to cope with the world we have created. We must adapt planning and building to live with increased flooding likely to happen with climate change. As well as far better flood defences, we have to deploy innovative solutions within our built environment. Sustainable urban drainage systems are crucial to help reduce flood risk in urban areas; and new technology can mitigate urban flooding that is less likely to be contained by traditional flood defences.
But adaptation alone is insufficient. At the same time as we protect the places we hold dear, we need to make a much bigger shift to a low carbon economy and new energy era, to mitigate against even greater change to the climate. This means seizing the upsides of a transition. We have to show how the explosion in clean technology can help to create sustainable growth, and how it can offer hope, opportunity and pride for communities that have suffered the pain of de-industrialisation, and for young people who worry that they face a future of low-pay, insecurity and dead-end work.
IPPR’s recent Zero Carbon London report sets out a route map for the capital to move towards a low carbon economy and harness its potential to improve public health, reduce emissions and pollution, create jobs and spur investment in new technologies.
We know we can do it. In Britain, we are blessed through our character and geography. We are a nation of problem solvers. We were the parents of the first industrial revolution and we are its children. Our universities are full of invention, our cities and towns full of men and women with the blood of builders and makers flowing through their veins.
We have rebuilt our cities after great plagues and fires, after crippling smog and after the devastation of war. We have stood together at the edge of crisis after crisis and tackled our shared problems together. We understand that hard work, solidarity and a deep loyalty to our country and each other can move mountains.
It is this spirit we need to capture to address the environmental crisis on our doorstep.
Fabian Society research has shown how right across the country, people have a deep attachment to the places they live and the people they live there with. But these landscapes and relationships are under threat from extreme weather events, that will continue with increasing frequency and ferocity unless we do something to prevent them.
Only a transition to clean energy will protect our communities for the long term. Dealing with the immediate need to build adequate flood defences is one part of the answer but ultimately we will need to build something much bigger: a low carbon economy and a new story of how we will live together in the 21st century. It’s the only way of preventing the scenes we have witnessed this winter becoming a regular occurrence.