Thursday, January 09, 2014

Protection from extreme weather is a democratic question

The main impact of climate change on the UK will be more frequent and extensive floods. That is the conclusion of every single report and study for the last decade, including the government's own major risk assessment published by the Environment Agency (EA) in 2012

So why is the key agency responsible for flood planning being cut? And how come the ConDems are lying about the amount being spent on flood prevention?

The EA is to lose 1700 jobs to cuts this year, on top of 1150 lost since 2009 – 23% of its workforce – and more than 300 flood defence schemes have been halted to save money.

Research by Friends of the Earth shows ministers are including estimated spending by local authorities and businesses in their totals. And the amount they are claiming has been spent by businesses is just an over-optimistic guess.

Prime Minister David Cameron admitted (to boos and hisses from Conservative climate change sceptics – and abuse from The Sun) that global warming is the underlying cause of the current floods.

But the EA has calculated that because of climate change, the government needs to spend an extra £20m per year every year up to 2035 on flood defences to have any chance of mitigating the impact on people, land, water supplies and wildlife.

Coastal erosion has speeded up and could make some areas uninhabitable, or at the very least, uninsurable. But some people in the worst affected areas have not even had time to recover from the last major floods in 2012. Insurers estimate paying out £400m so far. Even the lesser floods of 2012 cost the country £600m.

However, a new insurance scheme agreed between government and the insurance industry to help people in the areas most at risk to get some cover, takes no account of the impact of climate change. It is going to be capped at 500,000 properties even though the EA has estimated that between 1.7 and 3.6 million people will be affected by floods by 2050.

Given that there are currently 360 flood warnings in place across the UK, the lower end of that figure must have been reached already, if all impacts are taken into account.

The same jet stream fluctuation that has trapped the UK in a persistent low pressure area, is causing extreme cold and snow in the United states, where temperatures as low as -50 have been recorded. Winter in Ontario is always cold but even Canadians struggle to cope with -30C. It was -17C (-33C with wind chill) in the town of Hell, Michigan, prompting online jokes that Hell had frozen over.

Hell will certainly freeze over before governments take action to halt these frightening climate transformations. The truth is that even when leaders like David Cameron and Barack Obama accept the existence of climate change, capitalist states will do nothing to halt the rise in greenhouse gas emissions (up again by 2.1% in 2013). And it seems that in this time of austerity, they will do little or nothing to help people cope with the disastrous results.

Most greenhouse gas emissions, are due to - in order of impact - land use change (clearing forest and wilderness for agriculture or building on formerly agricultural land); burning coal, oil, gas, cement making and gas flaring.

And just 90 entities are responsible for 63% of all emissions:
- 50 investor-owned companies such as Chevron, Peabody, Shell, and BHP Billiton
- 31 state-owned companies such as Saudi Aramco and Statoil
- 9 state-run industries in China, Poland and the former Soviet Union.

The positive message for 2014, therefore, must be that the area for action is actually well defined and relatively narrow.  To halt climate change we need to take political, social and economic action to slow these  specific activities and then stop some of them entirely.

But to achieve that we need to find ways to replace our hollowed out democracies, operating only in the interests of those 90 entities, with a popular decision-making process that defends the interests of the 99% and their life on planet earth.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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