The recent flooding in the UK has prompted lots of political rhetoric and comments in the media. To be expected is the standard question about attribution, 'is there a link to climate change', or even 'have the floods been caused by climate change?'
Equally interesting is the spin applied to the events by various influential figures, such as the prime minister David Cameron, Lord Stern, or John Gummer, the former secretary of agriculture, fisheries and food under Thatcher and Major.
Take David Cameron who uttered the famous words 'money is no object':
“Money is no object in this relief effort. Whatever money is needed for, it will be spent,” Mr Cameron said, adding that more Armed Forces personnel could be deployed to join 1,500 already in Somerset and the Thames Valley. Despite a major injection of public money in which even uninsured households will be given cash for repairs, it will be a “depressingly long period of time” before many parts of England return to normal, he said.
This sounds familiar to German readers who will remember former chancellor Schröder promising fast and effective help ('schnelle und unbürokratische Hilfe') during the Elbe floods of 2002. Such interventions can make a decisive difference when it comes to elections. Of course, such help undermines the rational answer to prevent building in floodplains (through insurance policies) by creating a moral hazard to prospective home developers.
Lord Stern, as would be expected, used the opportunity to remind us about the increasing frequency of weather extremes all around the globe (on the Guardian frontpage under the headline 'Climate change is here now and it could lead to global conflict'), with the addendum that such extremes apparently have been linked to climate change by the IPCC:
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last September pointed to a changing pattern of extreme weather since 1950, with more heatwaves and downpours in many parts of the world, as the Earth has warmed by about 0.7C.
The IPCC has concluded from all of the available scientific evidence that it is 95% likely that most of the rise in global average temperature since the middle of the 20th century is due to emissions of greenhouse gases, deforestation and other human activities.
Against the caveats by the Met Office and other scientific sources who caution against a proven link between the two, Stern construes a picture which makes it look as if the IPCC had predicted this and we can safely assume that climate change is here.
Another construal is his pitch about the true impacts of extreme weather events. He draws a link to past climates which had temperatures more than 2 degrees higher than today and experienced sea levels five meters higher than today. Or how are we to interpret this paragraph:
If we do not cut emissions, we face even more devastating consequences, as unchecked they could raise global average temperature to 4C or more above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.
This would be far above the threshold warming of 2C that countries have already agreed that it would be dangerous to breach. The average temperature has not been 2C above pre-industrial levels for about 115,000 years, when the ice-caps were smaller and global sea level was at least five metres higher than today.
But let us agree, for the sake of the argument, that the link was indisputable. What would follow form this? I guess many would agree that one should discuss policies to prevent a repetition of the current drama by making the country more resilient to future weather extremes. In climate policy terms this is called strategy of adaptation. But this is not the conclusion drawn by Stern. For him it a reason to warn about future wars as a consequence of failed mitigation, as more extreme weather events will trigger conflicts and wars. Why? Because of mass migration. Just as the storm battered people in Somerset have fled the UK to invade the dry shores of the continent (maybe the Swiss have just anticipated these moves in the nick of time ;-) so will the millions of inhabitants from other continents.
The shift to such a world could cause mass migrations of hundreds of millions of people away from the worst-affected areas. That would lead to conflict and war, not peace and prosperity.
Even Stern recognises eventually that adaptation has to be part of climate policy. But what does he have to offer? 'The government will also have to ensure the country becomes more resilient to those impacts of climate change that cannot now be avoided, including by investing greater sums in flood defences.' He then returns quickly to his favourite mitigation instrument, high carbon prices to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions. The people hit by the floods will thank him.
Lord Deben, Chairman of the UK's Committee on Climate Change, formerly known as John Gummer (Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under Thatcher, and Secretary of State for the Environment under John Major in 1993), has something more to say about adaptation. Also writing in the Guardian, he says
However, beyond capital spending, we will need much more fundamental change. Both flooding and the effects of drought are made significantly worse by some modern farming practices. The compaction of the soil means less absorption of rainfall. When the rainfall is too little, the aquifers are not sufficiently replenished. When it's too much, the run-off swells the rivers and makes flooding worse. With so much more land being drained, the quantity of water driving down our watercourses is much increased and simply overwhelms their carrying capacity. The historic methods of flood alleviation – of wash meadows and other soft defences – have largely been abandoned and we are not encouraging the kind of cultivation higher up our rivers that can help to hold back the water.
But the built environment too will be affected. All those front gardens concreted over and the fashion for hard landscaping mean the natural absorption of water in our towns is much reduced. The result is that sewerage systems are overwhelmed. Worse still is our arrogant insistence of building on flood plains so that the natural mechanisms of flood alleviation are inhibited.
For him, investment in adaptation is necessary, but not enough. The crux for him lies in the lack of effective public administration. Too many cooks...
So, if we are properly to face up to the flooding threat, someone has to be in charge. At the moment, no one is ultimately responsible. Local authorities and the Environment Agency, Defra, the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government all have a finger in the pie. The water companies, the Highways Agency, Network Rail and the internal drainage boards are also crucial to a solution. Before people try to make party political points, it's been like this for 20 years.
The call for effective governance is certainly valid, although in the UK's political culture the call for a strong leader with responsibility and discretion to act often is taken as a surrogate for systems which work (independent of personalities). In fact, the agencies he lists need to be part of a functioning governance structure, unless he thinks it is enough to have some powerful new agency with a visible leader (who can be blamed if things go wrong again).
Be that as it may, Gummer seems to neglect the fundamental problem of the country (in fact, both big parties are caught up in equal measure): that there is no acknowledgement that adaptation is part of a country's infrastructure, which is a public good. The UK has a record of neglecting investment in public goods, relying on the private sector which is supposed to have the resources to step in. We have seen the consequences of this policy framework on many fronts, from a decrepit railway system to the privatisation of universities.
There has been no appetite of any government in recent time to address these monumental tasks of maintaining and redeveloping vital infrastructures. Confronted with the devastating floods, Cameron, Stern, and Gummer have hijacked the issue for their purposes. It is astonishing that in the face of the obvious (what are we going to do so we are better prepared next time - no matter what caused the floods?) they have resorted to electoral jockeying, scare tactics, and call for strong men. How long will it take to have 'grown up debate' (to use one of their favourite slogans) about adaptation and the duties of government for public investment?