THE BLOG

Flooding, Climate Change, and the Decarbonisation Revolution

14/02/2014 12:38 GMT | Updated 15/04/2014 10:59 BST

The attempts to assign blame for the current flooding in Britain have become disproportionate in comparison to the more important task of addressing how to respond to a rapidly changing climate. Although the government was predictably inept in responding to the floods, and left much undone which could have lessened the damage, there is still the unavoidable fact that the level of rainfall in January was the greatest in any month since 1767. By focusing too much on blame, and too little on climate change, it implies the flooding is a short term problem controllable by minor policy decisions, when - to state the obvious - no political lever or button ever existed which could have prevented the clouds from raining so much.

The question which arises during extreme weather events is whether they were caused by climate change, but climatologist Dr Mike Hulme points out what is missing from this limited perspective:

...the weather we now experience is the result of a semi-artificial climate; in a fundamental sense, it is different from the weather we would experience on a parallel planet which humans had not polluted. All weather events we experience from now on are to some indeterminable extent tainted by the human hand. There is no longer such a thing as a purely "natural" weather event.

Furthermore, the world`s foremost climate science organisation the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) last year released its fifth assessment report in which it stated:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.

Regarding responsibility it said "Human influence on the climate system is clear" and we were the "dominant cause".

The conclusions of the science are unambiguous. The days of treating climate change as a side issue are over: it is the political and economic issue of the century, for in the absence of a stable climate, all other advanced human ambitions are unobtainable. The last century, dominated largely by left and right ideology, will have to give way to a century where political and economic systems are guided in large part by the living and non-living systems of the planet, if we are to secure a meaningful and prosperous future.

The Maldives Islands already embody these ideals, as they undergo a decarbonisation program of revolutionary ambition. Their previous president Mohamed Nasheed, set the the goal of having the country carbon neutral by 2020, by generating energy from wind, solar, and biomass, and replacing diesel and petrol cars with electric ones. Spain has also made impressive progress in decarbonising its economy, as last year for the first time wind power became its top source of energy, helping to reduce the country`s greenhouse gas emissions by an estimate 23.1%. Denmark went further, as on November 3 last year wind power production exceeded the nation`s power consumption.

In Britain the story is different. David Cameron, who famously rode to power sledging with huskies in Norway, amid slogans such as "vote blue, go green", last year only slightly distanced himself from claims that he had ordered aides "to get rid of all the green crap". But his moment of candour would not have shocked anyone who had as much as glanced at the coalition government`s record, which over the years revealed a pro-fossil fuel, anti-environmental agenda.

Under the coalition Britain`s carbon emissions rose in 2012 by nearly 4%, more than any other EU nation except Malta, and in contrast to an average EU reduction of 2%. The year after these dismal figures the collation government responded by voting down an ambitious amendment to decarbonise the UK`s electricity generation by 2030. In addition, the chancellor George Osborne has spent his time in office pursuing and investing in fracking - a dirty, unreliable, and by no means low-carbon technology - at the expense of investment in better renewable options, and in spite of wide-scale local and national protests.

Government inaction on climate change is strengthened by accepting the framing of the recent flooding in a language which depicts it as a parochial British problem, and freak event, when it merely represents another mark on a pattern revealing a world in which extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and severity: ranging from last year`s 235mph winds which devastated the Philippines, to California`s Death Valley breaking the record for the hottest temperature (54.0C) in June ever on earth.

The fact that the most decisive response to climate change has come from the Maldives Islands shows that the leadership on this issue need not come from large countries in the industrialised West, but if we are to prevent devastating climate change the ambitious goals of Maldives must be adopted by larger more polluting nations. There is no doubt that decarbonised economies are the future. They offer security, could provide meaningful and fulfilling jobs to many of the young unemployed people, and present the opportunity to transform our technological, economic, and psychological relationship with the natural world, and its climate, for the better.

If there is another fine summer this year, we should not forget the current floods, and the imperative to respond immediately to our changing climate.