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UK floods: a warning to those who ignore threat of climate change

Comment: Natural disasters are set to become more common in a warming world, and politicians should take note

Flooding on the Somerset levels (Pic: Environment Agency/Flickr)

Flooding on the Somerset levels (Pic: Environment Agency/Flickr)

By Saleemul Huq

In the past few weeks I have been avidly following the floods in the UK, first in Somerset and then on the Thames and also the media coverage and political debates, from my house in Twickenham, close to the Thames river.

Over these weeks my views went through several changes which I would like to share below.

At first when the farms of the Somerset Levels were inundated with water, leading to the evacuation of cattle and people, I was not particularly impressed by what I saw on the TV.

I come from Bangladesh, where every year during the monsoon we see heavy rainfall leading to floods which last a few days and then drain away.

In order to qualify as severe floods the waters need to come to the rooftops of houses, and have to stay there for many weeks.

However, as the weeks went by and the river levels in the Thames began to swell and water began to seep into houses in my neighborhood, I saw the genuine distress this caused to my neighbours, even though they are relatively well off and live in expensive homes.

At the same time the fact that neighborhood volunteers pro-actively started taking actions to help each other, without waiting for officials to arrive, also reminded me if how neighbours and communities are the most important first resource in times of distress – whether it be in the UK or Bangladesh.

Report: Cameron says climate change is a ‘serious threat’

Another aspect of the coverage that intrigued me was the initial lack of response from the politicians and then their sudden move to action as they realised the extent of anger linked to their lack of action.

One indicator of this was the declaration by Prime Minister David Cameron of an allocation of £130 million for the Somerset region alone, where a few thousand families and farms are affected.

This sum (which is almost certain to rise further) is more than what the UK has pledged to support adaptation in the world’s forty eight least developed countries (LDCs).

The debate rapidly boiled down to the fact that preventive actions, such as dredging the rivers, had not been taken ahead of time despite advice to do so, resulting in loss and damage which is now estimated at least a billion pounds and rising.

This debate made me recall the arguments during the last UN climate conference in Warsaw where the UK (along with other developed countries) argued against the setting up of an international mechanism on loss and damage arguing that adaptation was sufficient.

Loss and damage: why is this an important issue?

The Thames Flood Barrier is often cited as the epitome of adaptation to coastal flooding to protect London. However, the barrier is no use against flood waters coming downstream.

In fact the barrier had had to be used almost as frequently over the last few weeks as it was all last year, in order to prevent the high daily high tide from exacerbating the flood waters coming from upstream.

The loss and damage from the floods being suffered now, although not directly attributable to human induced climate change, certainly has links to climate change and such events will be more frequent in future due to human induced climate change

So ultimately the UK’s leaders (from all political parties) will not just have to explain to their current flood affected voters why they failed to take action when they should have, but to explain to their children and grand children why they didn’t take action to prevent the worst impacts of climate change when they could have.

Saleemul Huq is a Senior Fellow in the Climate Change Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development

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  • Guenier

    The idea that the UK, responsible for little more than 1% of global CO2 emissions, could have done anything “to prevent the worst impacts of climate change” is absurd. The real “culprits” are the developing economies – not unreasonably keen to escape poverty and ambitious for economic and political growth. These countries (the UNFCCC “Non-Annex 1″ group) currently responsible for about 70% of emissions have consistently refused to accept mandatory cuts – hence the debacle at Copenhagen. China, for example, by providing access to reliable, cheap electric power (largely derived from burning coal) has lifted over 500 million people out of poverty. Do you imagine that the Chinese government feels any need to apologise for that to their children and grandchildren (let alone to the children and grandchildren of UK voters)?

    • Lana Lang

      The UK has a huge historical responsibility for emissions as we have been producing greenhouse gas emissions for over 100 years, as the first country to industrialise. This recent study confirms that in fact the UK has made the largest contribution to climate change: http://www.rtcc.org/2014/01/17/uk-has-made-largest-contribution-to-global-warming-says-study/ Secondly, the UK’s emissions per person are 10 metric tons of CO2 while those of China are only about 3 metric tons. Thirdly, if we look at consumption, the majority of China’s emissions are from producing goods that are exported to rich countries like the UK. Whichever way you look at it, the UK has a huge responsibility for causing climate change. It may be inconvenient, but it’s true.

      • Guenier

        Even if that were all true Lana (it isn’t – see below), it wouldn’t alter the fact that, as the UK emits little more than 1% of global CO2 emissions, there’s nothing we can do that would make a noticeable difference.

        Think about it. Supposing that, because of our “huge historical responsibility”, we decided to make amends by closing the UK down altogether – thereby condemning over 60 million people to abject misery and degradation – it wouldn’t do anything at all to “to prevent the worst impacts of climate change”.

        BTW your emissions per capita are incorrect. In 2010 (and they’ll be be more by now) China’s were 1.68 metric tons and the UK’s 2.16. China’s were greater than those of Spain, France and Sweden: http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/top2010.cap

        Also you may be interested to note that, up to 2010, developing countries accounted for 48% of cumulative emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/10/31/climate-emissions-idUKL5N0IL47J20131031 (they’re probably about 50% by now).

    • MOUSSA NA ABOU Mamouda

      Well, I’m afraid the opposition between developed and developing countries on GHG emissions reductions will be a major barrier for achievement of a climate deal in Paris. It’s true that if developing countries are responsible for 70% of GHG emissions, the math clearly shows that the International Community cannot address climate change only by acting on the remaining 30% emissions from developed countries. However, I do not agree with the idea of “mandatory cuts” by developing countries (see the point raised by Lana Lang).

      On the other hand, we have just one world, one planet and climate induced losses and damages will affect everybody, so let us address it based on … that fair principle of common but differentiated responsibility and capability of all countries.

      • Guenier

        Hmm … do you agree that the major Non-Annex ! countries (e.g. China, India, Brazil, South Korea, Indonesia, Iran, South Africa …) should, in any deal, be subject to the same reduction obligations as the USA, EU, Japan and Russia?

  • Moggg

    Great article. We need action on climate change now – mitigation and adaptation. Id like to think this – and other extreme weather events – will be a prompt to our leaders to take action!

    • Guenier

      But, Moggg, we have to face the reality that mitigation isn’t an option. Since the Earth Summit in Rio (1992) via Kyoto (1997) and Bali (2007) to the debacle at Copenhagen in 2009 (and since then) the UNFCC Non-Annex 1 (developing) countries – now responsible for about 70% of emissions – have been adamant that they will not accept binding commitments.

      Adaptation is the only option. And that requires a total rethink of our (the UK’s) climate policies.

  • Saleemul Huq

    This discussion stream seems to have gone in a direction regarding emissions that I had not even touched on. My point was that the leaders of successive governments of the United Kingdom have failed to invest in adaptation to protect their own citizens (and I am one of them) living in vulnerable parts of the country despite having been warned by the scientists, and that the scale of climatic impacts will become even more intense in future with climate change. The kind of investments that are being done (such as building a second Thames Barrier) will protect the commercial properties of the City of London but do nothing for the people whose houses are currently flooded upstream, and whose children will face much bigger floods in future. If they think things are bad now, they ain’t seen nothing yet!

  • Guenier

    Lana: you may not have read my comment very carefully. I didn’t say that we had to close down the UK to reduce emissions. What I said was that, as our share of global emissions is only 1%, even closing down the UK wouldn’t make a noticeable difference. That’s obviously true.

    BTW the recent floods demonstrate clearly that it’s failure to adapt – not futile attempts to mitigate – that show just how costly inaction can be.

    It might, I suppose, make a difference if humanity was prepared to radically cut emissions. But – to put it bluntly – it isn’t. As I noted above, the UNFCCC “Non-Annex 1″ group, currently responsible for about 70% of emissions, has consistently refused to accept mandatory cuts – hence the debacle at Copenhagen and the total lack of action since then. It may be disastrous. But I’m afraid it’s true.

  • Guenier

    My reply seems to be lost. Here’s the essence of it:

    China and solar power: yes, the Guardian is correct – in fact, China has about 35 GW of solar power. That sounds a lot – but put it into context. China is a huge country and its total electricity output in 2011 was 4692 TWh. Also the capacity of solar PV is poor – 10% on average.

    35 GW x 8760 hours pa = 307 TWh
    At 10% capacity = 31 TWh – i.e. only 0.7% of electricity output.
    Not so impressive.

    “All countries need to come together in tackling climate change …” Fine words, but the developing economies don’t seem to be interested.