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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?

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15 Comments sorted by

  1. Steven Crook

    Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

    Yes, yes, climate change.

    Truth is, if the UK went zero carbon overnight it would make negligible difference to CO2 levels and therefore extreme weather unless the rest of the planet followed. Even then there's the question of the lag between stopping emitting carbon and seeing beneficial effects.

    I'd have been more impressed with a review of the methods open to us to deal with run-off from our existing farms and conurbations rather than what was nothing more than a cry of 'look at climate change, isn't it awful'.

    Agreed dredging isn't a simple fix, and while there are mechanisms for dealing with run-off from new development, I see little MSM discussion of what can be done to deal with water from existing towns and cities. Given the demands on land in the UK for housing, food, transport, leisure and conservation, what choices are we going to have to make over the next 30 years?

    Or should we just shrug and accept it?

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    1. James Dyke

      Lecturer in Complex Systems Simulation at University of Southampton

      In reply to Steven Crook

      "Truth is, if the UK went zero carbon overnight it would make negligible difference to CO2 levels and therefore extreme weather unless the rest of the planet followed."

      I agree. But it does not follow that in the absence of all countries simultaneously making significant reduction nothing could or should happen. If you are convinced by the science (and I think you should be) then you should be making efforts on multiple fronts to do something about it. And that will (alas!) involve local, national and international politics.

      The Stern Report detailed the costs of significant climate change. I think it's fair to say that it would be financially ruinous if not physically impossible to mitigate against worse-case climate change. So 'yes, yes, climate change'. Now when are we going to take decisive action to do something about it?

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    2. Steven Crook

      Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

      In reply to James Dyke

      Oh, I think there's no doubt we're changing the planets climate through CO2 and land use change, and that we (humanity) need to address the problem we're creating.

      The trouble is, that with the best will in the world, there's going to be net increases in atmospheric CO2 for at least 50 years, regardless of any UK action.

      On that basis, I wonder if, for the UK, it might be more cost effective to emphasise adaptation because, even forgetting climate change, we know we need to do something to improve water management.

      I also think that, climate change is a good excuse for politicians and government agencies to avoid having to look at the efficiency and efficacy of their policies. Look at all the recent hand wringing and all it amounts to "what could we have done, it's not our fault, it's climate change", we'll have to spend more money...

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    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Steven Crook

      "if the UK went zero carbon overnight it would make negligible difference to CO2 levels and therefore extreme weather unless the rest of the planet followed."

      If the UK does go zero carbon overnight, there'll be a huge market for its consultants and technologists, because the rest of the world will be pretty keen to know How They Did It.

      The rest of the world isn't stupid, it would be following the UK in quick time.

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    4. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Steven Crook

      "what could we have done" - we could have acted responsibly, rather than allow Murdoch-driven Denialism to cow us from action

      "it's not our fault" - err, yes it is

      "it's climate change" - as predicted with increasing veracity for a couple of decades now

      "we'll have to spend more money" - perhaps. Perhaps we should raise the money we'll need to spend through a consumption tax on the cause of the problem - fossil fuels. Only trouble is, there's an army of finance sector opportunists see emission trading as their fortune-making main chance.

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    5. David Jordan

      Earth scientist

      In reply to James Dyke

      Meanwhile the Today program invited Nigel Lawson to discuss climate change this morning. It's not quite like giving the Nobel prize to Henry Kissinger (which prompted Tom Lehrer to declare the death of satire) but it's much too close for comfort.

      I will find it as difficult to explain to my kids, when they are old enough to ask, why we let ourselves be led into the disaster of AGW by the likes of Lawson as to explain how Britain allowed the worlds best broadcaster to wither into a channel for thin, sometimes partisan trivia.

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    6. James Dyke

      Lecturer in Complex Systems Simulation at University of Southampton

      In reply to David Jordan

      I despair, but... Lawson isn't alone. In fact he represents a very influential set of Conservative politician - some of them in the current UK Government. In fact, one of them the current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs! e.g.

      "we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries", "the temperature has not changed in the last seventeen years"

      This man is a central figure in how the UK responds to climate change. His actions thus far include sacking over 500 jobs in flood protection and halving the budget allocated to climate change. mitigation.

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    7. Steven Crook

      Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

      In reply to David Arthur

      Ahhh bless, the "If we build it they will come" approach. I admire your enthusiasm, but much of the technology isn't there and some is probably decades away.

      The London tube network was leading edge, when people started to build their versions they looked at the tube and did theirs in a better way. Meanwhile we have something that's old and creaking at the seams and incredibly expensive to upgrade.

      It's called the bleeding edge for good reasons.

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    8. Steven Crook

      Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

      In reply to David Jordan

      The people at Biased BBC would entirely agree with you about the BBC. But for completely different reasons.

      The programme deliberately set this up as a confrontation rather than what we should be talking about. Policy.

      Lawson did make one attempt to switch things around and (I think) to start to suggest that we should be spending more on adaptation and less on trying to reduce CO2 emissions, when our contribution to global CO2 is so small.

      But that wasn't the purpose of the interview...

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    9. Kirsty Douglas

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Steven Crook

      That is what the Abbott Government in Australia is saying. We won't do anything much until everybody else does. Great attitude guys!

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  2. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    My ancestors are predominantly from Ireland and Cornwall, in the hinterlands of and historically dominated by their London overlords.

    Having grown up in Bathurst, a moderate inland city ~200 km from Sydney, I now live in Maryborough, a once-prosperous town now in post-industrial decline some 250 km from Brisbane, and have thus witnessed how fringes are too readily abandoned to the depradating mercies of resource-extracters.

    Not surprisingly, I'm strongly in favour of devolution.

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    1. Steven Crook

      Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

      In reply to David Arthur

      "Not surprisingly, I'm strongly in favour of devolution."

      Perhaps you and Nigel Farage have something in common...

      If you were living in the UK you'd be opposed to the EU and have joined UKIP? :-)

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Steven Crook

      Err, I'm strongly in favour of centralised authorities not having say over local affairs in areas where they have neither care nor clue.

      I've seen enough environmental devastation wrought by State governments on areas far from the major city, because they know there's not enough votes in not fouling those distant areas, whereas there's oodles of money to be had from coal mining corporations - to be spent in winning votes from mug punters in that capital city.

      If I was living in Scotland or Cornwall I'd be strongly in favour of staying in the EU as a way of countering the influence of the pirates of the City of London Corporation.

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