Over Christmas large swathes of northern England drowned, washed away in a huge flood caused by storms from the Atlantic. The same storms battered the Irish coast, and are now moving up towards the arctic, where the North Pole is expected to be 1C – 30C above the average for this time of year – on 30th December. Towns in the north that do not normally experience flooding, like York and Leeds, were submerged, and some towns on the west coast experienced their second or third major floods in three years. Insurers estimate the cost of the latest floods at 5 billion pounds, and more are expected tonight and tomorrow.
For many people these floods will bring financial ruin, because many people in the affected areas were no longer able to obtain flood insurance – the area they live in was deemed too high risk by the insurance companies, which stopped covering them after the 2011-12 floods. Those floods are estimated to have cost 3 billion pounds, and since then the government has been investing about half a billion pounds a year in flood mitigation measures that clearly were insufficient to handle the latest storms. This withdrawal of insurance comes despite the fact that the government instituted a 10 pound levy on all insurance plans in the UK to subsidize the continued provision of flood insurance to at-risk areas – even that additional support was insufficient to get the insurers to return to Cumbria, so people in that area have been running their businesses uninsured since the last floods.
Now the Environment Agency are talking about learning to live with floods instead of preventing them, because they think the government just doesn’t have the resources to cope with the weather. The first Labour member has broken ranks and demanded that mitigation and recovery funding be taken from the foreign aid budget, citing – of all countries! – Bangladesh as an example of a place that shouldn’t be receiving aid money when British people are at need. Bangladesh, of course, faces a future of flood adaptation measures that make the UK’s look trivial, and part of the reason it is economically unable to handle that future is past British colonial intransigence. But of course now that the UK begins to face its global warming future, solidarity with poorer nations will be one of the first higher ideals to give way.
It won’t be the last though, because this is what adaptation looks like: increasing amounts of resources being devoted to Canute-like strategies to temporarily shore-up defenses against increasingly vicious and uncontrollable natural phenomena, and the most vulnerable people on the periphery left to drown or burn. These unprecedented rains aren’t some kind of aberration or heavenly wrath with no explanation or pattern – they’re the latest manifestation of global warming, and there is much worse to come in our lifetimes. Some people will say they’re worse because of El Nino, but the same thing happened three years ago, and for six months much of Somerset was underwater before this El Nino started. The future is here now, long before everyone expected, and it’s not pretty. As the weather turns on us, what we have to do just to hold it back is going to get a lot worse, and the numbers of people affected – and their anger at the people who can’t fix it – are going to grow.
This extreme weather and its associated damage is coming at a time when our ecosystem is suffering increasing stress from other human interference – draining the water table for unsustainable farming, overfishing, habitat destruction and invasive species as well as increasing pressure for land and basic resources like water. We see these stresses running up against the influence of climate change all the time now, in debates like those in the UK and the US about how much water to sequester for protecting environmental flows in rivers. This combination of stresses means that we have less room to manoeuvre when it comes to adaptation. Californians, for example, have adapted to the drought by draining groundwater, which takes decades or centuries of quality rainfall to replace; in the UK there is pressure to dredge more rivers, but river systems are vital to the health of ecosystems, and damaging these systems through dredging will place other pressures on the environment. Increasingly, adaptation measures that were taken for granted in the past will come into conflict with other land-use practices or environmental safeguards.
The UK’s problem with flooding is a good example of this. To properly manage flooding in this “new normal” of increased rainfall and intense storms is going to require coordinated action all along river systems, and it will have to include setting aside some farmland to flood when rivers overflow. George Monbiot describes how upstream grouse moors and fallow fields will need to change land-use practices to prevent run-off, and the need to restore the health of rivers, rather than dredge them, in order to ensure major rains can be properly managed. Additionally, where previously winter precipitation would be stored as snow and released slowly in spring meltwater, now it will fall as rain and wash immediately off high lands, requiring changes in winter land-use patterns. This is going to create additional pressure on farmland and require new models of cooperation between urban and rural communities that, frankly, I don’t think are possible in the UK’s class-blighted society.
Adaptation is also going to require economic changes that a lot of mainstream economists aren’t going to be happy with. The flood levy obviously hasn’t worked, and the idea that insurers will continue to be able to operate profitably under current market conditions while also providing a useful social service is beginning to look untenable. They are going to need increasingly aggressive protections as climate change worsens, or the government is going to have to take on a bigger role as an insurer of last resort. Farmers who are forced to set aside land for flood plains are obviously not going to be insurable, and communities that are clearly intended to play a role as upstream sacrifices (as happened in parts of York) can’t be expected to insure themselves. It’s hard to see how these wide scale, often transnational environmental challenges can be effectively responded to by piecemeal responses in local areas or single countries, or by isolated market entities like insurance companies. A bigger cooperative model is going to be needed if we’re to preserve the key components of our environment in the near future.
Adaptation vs. mitigation was a key plank of the denialist platform in the 1990s and 2000s, and continues to be pushed by luke-warmers and delayers such as the Breakthrough Institute. It’s important to remember, though, that adaptation in practice means that some people have to sacrifice their livelihoods and sometimes their lives on the frontline of global warming’s impacts. For governments, adaptation is a question of dollars and shifting resources, but for the people who are forced to wade through water in the front room of their business “adaptation” can mean bankruptcy or financial ruin, displacement or – at best, in this current situation – a completely wretched Christmas. As the paid shills for delay and denial shift from braying “it’s too soon, we don’t know if it’s a real risk” to “it’s too late, all we can do is adapt,” we should remember what happened this Christmas in the UK (and also the US mid-west, and the Australian surf coast). Adaptation means some people losing their homes and livelihoods, it means towns flooded or (as happened in Japan earlier this year) entirely washed away. It also means increasing pressure on the environment and ecosystem services we all depend on, and on infrastructure like the collapsed bridge in Tadcaster or the overflowing US sewage works – infrastructure that we have taken for granted in some cases for hundreds of years. Even if we somehow conclude that adaptation is still cheaper than mitigation, we should stop and ask ourselves: is it worth the savings?
Let’s hope 2016 brings a renewed commitment to fix this growing and increasingly dangerous problem, before climate changes washes, burns and blows away all of industrial civilization.