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A Stern Review of UK Flooding

It’s hard to believe that almost eight years have passed since the publication of Lord Nicholas Stern’s Review on the Economics of Climate Change.

13th February 2014    |     Peter Rolton: Chairman, Rolton Group

The report asserts that the need for action to reduce emissions is urgent, and that the longer the problem is left unresolved, the more expensive it will be to fix. As it bluntly states: ‘If we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever.’ Symptoms of climate change, Stern wrote, would manifest not solely in a general increase of global temperature, but in extreme and unpredictable weather patterns.

We’re currently in the throes of some of the worst storms seen by the UK since records began, and every time you pick up a newspaper or switch on the news you’ll hear another announcement of the driest this, the hottest that, the coldest the other. Certainly the flooding that thousands in Britain are currently battling again is unprecedented; costs to repair the damage have already been estimated in the region of £1 billion and the Met Office’s chief scientist Dr Julia Slingo has said of the chaos, ‘all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change’. Alarm bells should be ringing: this is the start of the extreme weather Lord Stern warned us of almost a decade ago.

We’re fast approaching a precipice after which point any notion of reliable weather prediction could become a thing of the past. As Lord Stern writes, ‘our actions now and over the coming decades could create risks of major disruption to economic and social activity, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century. It will be difficult or impossible to reverse these changes.’ I’m sure he’s not the sort of man to say ‘I told you so’, but here we are, sending in the troops to combat a disaster that has been described as ‘like a warzone’…

Meteorologists are already missing the mark; this time last year their calculations led to calls for a hosepipe ban after a particularly dry winter, mere days before the skies opened and it rained for weeks. This winter I’ve only seen one frost, and I can’t remember another year where that has been the case. It leaves me wondering why we have been so slow to act on the advice of climate specialists, many of whom have been voicing a clarion call for years.

With a Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who is dubious about the very existence of man-made climate change and who has cut spending in the area by over a quarter in the last year, what hope do we really have of defending ourselves against the changing weather, let alone attempting to bring it to a halt? If we are to solve the problem, we first have to acknowledge that it exists. The battle for a 2030 decarbonisation target was hard fought and sadly defeated in the House of Commons towards the end of last year; hardly the behaviour of a government prepared to take difficult early steps to save attempting to take impossible ones later.

The North Sea flood of 1953 claimed thousands of lives in the Netherlands when water overcame sea defences and spread unstoppable throughout its islands, one third of which exist below sea level. The deluge was a wake-up call, and forced a strong reaction: the Delta Works now in place is an ambitious and sturdy system designed to defend against future incidents. Will this winter’s flood crisis be enough to wake Britain up, or will we remain stubbornly asleep? It often takes exceptional circumstances to make the scales drop from political eyes when regarding an unpopular or inconvenient subject, and I hope that the devastation caused in recent weeks by phenomenal and life threatening weather will be enough to do it.

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