A week is a long time in politics, they say – so six months is clearly an absolute aeon.
Six months have now elapsed since Britain suffered the wettest winter ever that saw 7800 homes flooded and thousands more evacuated from their homes. The latest figures suggest the floods have cost the country upwards of £1 billion – let alone the emotional cost to families that have lost treasured possessions and had their homes wrecked.
Sadly, however, the political and media attention garnered by the winter floods ebbed away rapidly as the floodwaters receded. Inevitable perhaps – but dangerous if we’re to put in place the measures we need as a country to become more resilient to future flooding. After all, as the government themselves project, up to a million more people could be put at serious flood risk by the 2020s if climate change proceeds unchecked. Politicians can’t be merely fairweather friends to the households and businesses in the frontline of climate change.
This past week, however, flooding and climate change has returned to the headlines – and this time not because of a weather disaster, but because the politics of flooding may be shifting.
On Tuesday, the Guardian revealed what campaigners had long suspected – that the Department of the Environment (Defra) had spent the winter fudging the figures on flood defence spending when it knew the truth all along. Throughout the floods, Owen Paterson had maintained that this Government was spending more on flood defences than ever before, until pressure from campaigners, the Opposition and the Office for National Statistics forced Defra into quietly announcing it was ‘clarifying’ the figures.
Now, a leaked draft communications strategy has shown that Defra officials knew this to be the case all along, and that they were warning of the “risk” that “the media make a link between climate change [and] the risk of flooding and whether the government is doing enough to prepare”. It beggars belief that Owen Paterson’s department should have put such effort into trying to protect its reputation when it should have been focusing on protecting households and businesses. It’s depressing, also, that Paterson has turned down offers by the Met Office’s Chief Scientist to brief him on climate science – as revealed this week through a Freedom of Information request by Friends of the Earth. But at least such spin and ignorance is now being exposed.
More encouragingly, Wednesday saw three further developments in the politics of climate adaptation. First was the release of the Committee on Climate Change’s latest progress report, a state-of-the-nation appraisal of how resilient the UK is proving to our increasingly extreme weather. There has been some progress, the CCC report, in key infrastructure sectors starting to prepare for climate change; but public investment in flood defences continues to lag far behind what’s needed – by some £500m, in fact. This is despite the extra money announced by the government in the wake of the floods – because this cash is simply for repairs, not new capital investment.
That brings us to the second positive development, which was a toughening of Labour’s position on flooding and climate change. Shadow Environment Secretary Maria Eagle announced on Wednesday that she “will be the Environment Secretary that reinstates flood protection as a departmental priority”, and that “the Labour party is clear that we will have to prioritise long-term investment in flood risk management.” This is very welcome. It’s now imperative that this is carried through, and is not lost in the negotiations of Labour’s Zero Based Review. The bar has now been raised for other political parties.
Maria Eagle’s announcement also raises the prospect of a more mature debate about climate change adaptation in future. Westminster needs to move beyond doubting the science of manmade global warming and trying to fudge the figures. We need to be debating, as a society, what climate change we can realistically adapt to – and what we absolutely have to avoid through cutting carbon pollution. In Whitehall-speak, ‘adaptation’ needs to be reunited with ‘mitigation’ – because both are fundamentally intertwined.
That brings me to the third positive development of the past week – a very welcome announcement by the Environmental Audit Committee that it is launching an inquiry into climate change adaptation. Let’s hope it can provide a space for that more mature discussion on managing the risks of climate change.
One dark cloud remains on the horizon, however: the incumbent environment secretary. Owen Paterson is incapable of leading a serious debate about how the UK can best cope with the threat of climate change. David Cameron should use his much-anticipated reshuffle to give Mr Paterson the boot as soon as possible.
Guy Shrubsole is a climate and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth