THE BLOG

Flood Review Must Stop Harmful 'Sceptic' Cabal

08/01/2016 16:39 GMT | Updated 08/01/2017 10:12 GMT

The UK Government's National Flood Resilience Review, which was announced on 13 December, must put an end to the malign influence on policy of a tiny cabal of Conservative politicians who promote unscientific climate change denial.

Despite numerous warnings over the past few years from the Met Office, Committee on Climate Change and other experts that the UK is experiencing more intense downpours, the Government has been caught out by heavy winter rainfall for the second time in three years.

Although the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has not yet published the Environment Agency's analysis of the economic losses from flooding during winter 2013-14, the wettest on record, the figures are likely to be surpassed by the damage caused during December 2015, the rainiest calendar month on record.

While the magnitude of rainfall in some parts of the UK has been unprecedented, it should not have been unanticipated. It is part of a pattern, with six of the seven wettest years since records began in 1910 having occurred from 2000 onwards, during a period when we have also had our eight warmest years. Climate change is making the UK warmer and wetter, with increasing risks of extreme events, such as heavy rainfall and heatwaves.

All this was laid out in the UK's first Climate Change Risk Assessment in January 2012, published by DEFRA when Caroline Spelman was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Unfortunately, her successor, Owen Paterson, did much to undermine efforts to make the UK more resilient to climate change, and bears some of the responsibility for the inadequate efforts so far to manage mounting flood risks.

Mr Paterson flaunted on numerous occasions his unscientific denial of the risks of climate change, which manifestly infected decision-making within DEFRA between his appointment in September 2012 and his sacking in July 2014.

For instance, when DEFRA staff devised plans in 2013 for Flood Re, a new scheme for subsidising insurance for homes exposed to high risk of flooding, they did not consider climate change and ignored warnings from the Climate Change Risk Assessment about more properties being under threat.

Spending on flood defences also failed to reflect the impact of climate change during Mr Paterson's term in office. In its annual progress report to Parliament in June 2015, the expert Committee on Climate Change warned:

"Over the last four years there has been underinvestment in flood and coastal risk management in England, totalling more than £200 million. Due to this underinvestment, expected annual flood damage will be higher now than it was in 2010."

And Mr Paterson made large cuts to the number of staff in DEFRA who had responsibility for overseeing efforts to make the UK more resilient to climate change impacts. He did not even launch DEFRA's National Adaptation Programme in July 2013, which was required by the 2008 Climate Change Act.

As environment secretary, Mr Paterson appeared to rely not on expert advice, but instead on information from his brother-in-law, Viscount Ridley, a former chair of Northern Rock bank. Shortly after being removed from his post by the Prime Minister, Mr Paterson delivered a speech to Lord Lawson's lobby group for climate change 'sceptics', the Global Warming Policy Foundation. The speech was apparently drafted by Lord Ridley, an adviser to the Foundation.

Lord Ridley was elected to the House of Lords by 24 Conservative hereditary peers in February 2013. His main scientific qualification is a PhD in Zoology which he received for a project on 'The Mating System of the Pheasant'. His study was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, a fact that he neglected to mention in a recent book chapter attacking Government support for scientific research.

In one of his regular polemics about climate change in a column for The Times on 4 January, under the headline 'Don't blame climate change for these floods', Lord Ridley made the false claim that last month was "Britain's second wettest December". In fact, the Met Office concluded that it was not only the wettest December, but also the wettest calendar month on record.

Even though Mr Paterson now sits on the backbenches in the House of Commons, he, along with Lord Ridley, Lord Lawson and a handful of other climate change 'sceptics' in the Conservative Party continue to hamper efforts to make the UK more resilient to the increasing risks of flooding.

Mr Paterson's successor as environment secretary, Elizabeth Truss, has not embraced climate change denial like him, but neither has she reversed all the damage he inflicted on DEFRA.

For the sake of the country, the National Flood Resilience Review must sweep away the extreme ideological approach to climate change pursued by Mr Paterson and this small cabal, and instead reinstate an evidence-based approach to policy-making on adaptation.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.