Perhaps because they had nothing better to do, or perhaps because I have now reached a particular age, a lot of my friends had babies during the pandemic. This is an altogether happier arrangement than the life-change that many MPs seem to have experienced in lockdown: despair about their party’s political prospects. Labour MPs doubt they will ever win an election again, while Conservative MPs fear that their party will never do anything with power. Babies are infinitely preferable.
Lockdown is also the ideal time for a friend to have a baby since children are just as cute and adorable on Instagram as they are in real life – but they are also quiet on there, and cannot give you the germs they have picked up at their nurseries. The era of the Instagram baby has made me increasingly broody. But I have discovered a way to combat this, which is to remind myself of my own fears as a child and of one fear in particular: water.
I was once so frightened of water that I would cry from the moment my mother turned on the taps in the bath to the moment I had been washed and dried. My fear of water and of drowning persisted throughout my early childhood. One of the greatest causes of my anxiety was having to cross the old Hungerford Bridge, which connected Embankment Tube station on the north side of the Thames to the Southbank Centre on the south. Whenever a train crossed the attached railway bridge, the pedestrian walkway would shake unnervingly. I was convinced that one day the bridge would collapse, taking me and everyone on it to a watery grave.
I was also afraid that London would flood. As a child, I had two consolations. The first was that we lived in a flat well above ground level (I still do). If there was a flood, my downstairs neighbours may have been swept away, but I would have survived in our new riverside apartment. The second was that London had the Thames Barrier, a feat of modern engineering that prevents the river overflowing into the capital’s flood basin. As a nervous child, I endowed the barrier with nothing less than supernatural powers: it simply didn’t flood in London.
Until this year, that is. Twice in July, services on the London Underground were cancelled due to heavy flooding, and large parts of the city, including Hackney in the north-east and Barnes in the west, suffered serious flood damage. Now that I am grown up, I understand that the Thames Barrier does not possess magical powers, and it cannot prevent flooding from London’s subterranean rivers, which were built over or redirected as the city expanded.
Flooding in the capital is the result of two failures. The first is neglecting to repair and strengthen the huge and ambitious infrastructure projects built by the Victorians. Across the UK we remain heavily reliant on them, though they cannot last forever. Submerged rivers underneath London will start to burst their banks with greater regularity. Flood defences, which had their funds cut under Tory austerity in 2010, will prove inadequate throughout the country.
The second is the failure to contend with another, less positive, Victorian legacy: the destructive changes to our climate and natural environment produced by carbon- intensive industrialisation. Here, the British government has two challenges: to reduce our carbon emissions to net zero as quickly as possible; and to embark on a major economic, social and cultural programme that will prepare the population for a century of extreme weather events. It is failing at both.
The climate crisis assumes a curious position in domestic politics. On the one hand, most people agree that accelerating climate change is serious and needs reversing. On the other, leadership on the issue is often absent within political parties and, where it exists, it yields under even the faintest of pressures. This is true despite committed environmental true-believers such as Ed Miliband, Caroline Lucas, Michael Gove and Zac Goldsmith occupying significant roles of state.
Sometimes this leadership buckles under the mere idea that changing our way of life might be unavoidable in the future. There is also relatively little pressure applied on politicians besides that exerted by direct-action groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Neither of London’s July floods were headline news; if you were not on Twitter or in the capital, you may have missed them.
The government is contemplating delaying its ban on sales of new gas boilers by five years, to 2040 – a false economy given that the boilers can either be banned at considerable expense, or ripped out later at even greater cost.
The challenge of climate change remains, as Margaret Thatcher warned in 1989, that we choose to “plunder the planet today and leave our children to deal with the consequences tomorrow”. Yet we still quibble over inevitable costs, and are even less committed to funding programmes that will help us adapt to a changing climate in the future than we are to those that could mitigate its effects today.
One reason London’s floods are largely ignored is that British politics is stuck. People have little faith that we will act decisively to tackle the climate crisis, or that we will repair our tattered national infrastructure. The floods are yesterday’s news: they are the product of mistakes we made in the past, and mistakes we don’t look particularly inclined to address in the present or indeed the near future.
The challenge for both Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson is to lift the mood of despair around their parties – and with it, the general sense that the United Kingdom’s alarming floods and extreme weather events are going to be an inevitable part of 21st-century life.
This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special