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Dredging and drilling are both recipes for disaster

The future is wet, so what are we going to do about it? Tim Ireland/PA

The United Kingdom stands at a crossroads. In the coming months decisions will be made that will largely determine whether the union continues in something like its current state, or whether the people of a culturally distinct region with its own proud history will demand more autonomy.

I am of course referring to the southwest of England.

While political attention is currently focused on the Scottish independence referendum, perhaps it will be the counties of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall (with its own Celtic heritage and independence movement) whose people will stick two fingers up to London. Following the government’s unique approach to flood defence and management, significant fractions of the southwest are underwater, and the region is currently inaccessible by mainline rail. Further heavy rain forecast this week will only make matters worse.

Before one can comment on the wider implications of such weather one must of course pause, genuflect and recite: “Weather is not climate, it is not possible (nor desirable) to extrapolate local weather events to the state of the global climate.” And of course one cannot attribute any abnormal or extreme weather to anthropogenic climate change.

Actually, no. That’s simply not true. The atrocious conditions outside my window right now are a result of the actions that this and previous generations have had on the Earth’s climate. How can I claim that? The IPCC’s last report in September declared it was 95% certain that humans have altered the Earth’s climate. Consequently any weather, rain or shine, sun or snow occurs on the surface of a planet changed by us.

We cannot, perhaps will never, be able to conclusively say that any particular regional spell of weather would only have ever happened because of climate change. But there is increasing evidence that we should expect more extreme weather; more droughts, more floods, more intense storms.

So what we going to do about it? I want to talk about the UK, but the themes are applicable to any country in the world. Conceptually the problem is very simple: the flow of water from the sky to the land is currently exceeding the flow or water from the land to the sea. Having neither scales nor fins we humans are particularly maladapted to aquatic conditions and so this excess water represents all manner of nuisance.

Attention is currently focused on increasing the flow of water into the sea. It then becomes the sea’s problem, but as the water came from there originally, balance is thereby restored. This explains recent political finger-pointing about dredging rivers, or rather not dredging them enough. Dredging the rivers, the reasoning goes, will increase their capacity to transport water away. But this clamour to “dredge baby dredge” is as misguided as the clamour to “drill baby drill” in the lurch towards fracking for shale gas.

In the first instance, dredging a portion of river will simply shift the problem downstream, unless one wants to propose the potentially terrific expense of making significant increases to total river capacities within a water catchment area.

A more viable solution is to keep the water on the land for longer and release it gradually into rivers and so the sea. Natural processes are very adept at this. But intensive agriculture and urbanisation has lead to a significant reduction in the amount of rain absorbed under the surface into ground water, leaving a much greater runoff to pour into already swollen rivers. The problem national and local government have is that the levers they are able to pull cannot easily affect land use. They do have budgets for dredging or building temporary levees or repairing bridges, but these are just sticking plasters, or make the problem worse somewhere else.

What the weather affecting the UK right now should tell us is that we need to take urgent action not just to try and deal with its effects as effectively as possible, but to also address the engine of their creation. These storms are the harbingers of a new climate that we are creating. While this is an inadvertent consequence of exploiting the fossil fuel that power our industrialised world, we cannot plead ignorance as we have known for many years that burning coal, oil and gas along with land use changes and agriculture will change the Earth’s atmosphere. Britain’s weather storms, screams and howls. When will we listen?