Thursday, January 03, 2013

Climate change brings extreme rain and flooding

As many as 5.2m UK properties are already at risk of flooding, with 2.4m threatened by rivers and the sea, and a further 2.8 million at risk from surface water from overflowing drains. This number will rise significantly as climate change increases the volume of winter rains.

Statistics from the National Climate Information Centre now show that days of extreme rain have become more common since 1960. This is defined as the sort of downpour expected once in 100 days. Last year, extreme rain fell around once every 70 days.

Scientists say that as the world has warmed by 0.7C, the atmosphere is able to hold 4% more moisture, which means more potential rain. Last year was the wettest in England's recorded history.  

The flood misery in large areas of England, Wales and Scotland is far from over. Huge bands of rain from the Atlantic are forecast until mid-January affecting many areas but particularly the south-west of England.

Thousands of homes, shops and businesses have flooded and disrupted rail and road journeys mean it’s been anything but a fun holiday for hundreds of thousands of people.

Once the floods recede, the clean up begins. As Americans whose homes were flooded In Hurricane Sandy are discovering, the post-flood period is a nightmare.

Blankets of black mould up to two inches thick flourish on walls causing respiratory illnesses that could harm people long term. Many thousands of New Yorkers have found their insurance policies don’t cover flood damage. It turns out only 18% of Americans have flood insurance.

In the UK some areas may become uninsurable, as the government and insurance industry wrangle over a protection plan. Environment minister Richard Benyon said: “It’s rather a shame it’s been raised at this particular moment when there are a lot of people with flooded homes.” But surely this is the best time to talk about it and sort it?

If anyone doubts the cause of the floods, here is a map published by the European Environment Agency in November. It shows the increase in winter rain in north-west Europe, resulting from climate change, alongside that other key risk factor for floods – building on flood plains and concreting over the land.

This remarkable report from the EEA is an in-depth study of all the varied impacts likely to result from climate change on different EU member states. Here’s a summary map:

As can be seen, the dangers to European society and economy are more than matched by the risks to precious eco-systems.

Last year was a dangerous turning point: unprecedented melting of the ice caps, droughts, storms and hurricanes and for the UK, the wettest summer on record and now the floods. The US is currently hit by snow storms but believe it or not, 15 inches of snow is not enough to ease the Midwest drought. Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota are still in the two worst drought categories. But the Democrats and Republicans agreed not to mention climate change during the Presidential election.

We can’t halt climate change entirely now – the emissions already in the atmosphere are going to have big effects. But we need to remove all future decisions from the paralysed profit-focused governments and corporations and instead form a network of People’s Assemblies.

The network could take steps to start cutting emissions now, perhaps holding warming below 2 degrees in the best-case scenario and adopt and emergency plan to mitigate unavoidable impacts, for example by

  •  Improving natural flood defences on coasts and river mouths Halting construction on flood plains
  •  Encouraging communities to remove the concrete carapace that is strangling drainage, freeing up as much land as possible.

AA global network of People’s Assemblies could quickly put together a binding agreement on emissions reductions, and open the way for a new era of sustainable production. Acting how to achieve this should become the focus for meetings up and down the country early in the New Year.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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