The government's response to warnings tough choices need to be made on flood protection reveals how dysfunctional its climate adaptation efforts have become
I am beginning to feel sorry for Lord Chris Smith, and not just because the chairman of the Environment Agency is rather busy at the moment.
Earlier this week, Smith penned an eminently sensible column for the Daily Telegraph defending the Environment Agency's efforts to protect the UK from the latest wave of extreme weather and arguing that the country's approach to flood protection may have to change in the future. For his trouble he has now received a public rebuke from both the prime minister and the communities secretary.
What could Smith have possibly written to justify such criticism at a time when you would expect the government to be lining up to support the agency tasked with dealing with the immediate problem of rising flood waters? After all, Smith resisted the temptation to complain about the way in which his agency is facing job cuts, including to some of the teams that work on flood management. He also opted not to provoke climate sceptic Telegraph readers or environment secretaries by pointing out that flood risks will increase as climate impacts take hold. Instead, he made the rather uncontroversial point that "difficult choices" would have to be made in the future about which areas to protect from flooding. "There's no bottomless purse," he wrote, sounding not unlike a coalition minister seeking to justify unpopular spending cuts. "We need to make difficult but sensible choices about where and what we try to protect."
How could such a bland truism possibly merit public criticism from the upper echelons of the government? Hasn't mankind been choosing which areas to protect from floods ever since it worked out how to build the first levee? Well, Smith's mistake – if you can call it that – was his decision to illustrate the point with a rhetorical flourish.
"Rules from successive governments give the highest priority to lives and homes; and I think most people would agree that this is the right approach," he wrote. "But this involves tricky issues of policy and priority: town or country, front rooms or farmland?" That, apparently, was enough to trigger a public dressing down from the prime minister.
Now anyone with even a passing understanding of how a newspaper column works would immediately recognise what Smith was trying to say and why he was using hyperbole to make his point. I'd wager not a single Telegraph reader put down their paper on Monday morning and exclaimed "my word, a chap here is recommending we abandon all farmland to flooding".
Unfortunately, David Cameron does not appear to understand the conventions of the newspaper column and as such the prime minister aimed thinly veiled criticism at Smith on Wednesday, telling the Commons that "there shouldn't be a false choice between protecting the town and protecting people in the countryside". Eric Pickles – standing in for Owen Paterson in the Commons yesterday after the environment secretary required emergency surgery on his eye – made the criticism more explicit, stating unequivocally: "We will work to defend both town and country. For the record, I do not agree with the comments of Lord Smith who implied there is a choice between the two."
Of course, wilfully misunderstanding someone to make a cheap political point and divert attention from underlying issues does not really constitute news any more. But this latest footnote in the long-running saga that is the government's cavalier approach to flood risk is still worth highlighting, as it goes to the heart of all that is wrong with both the coalition's flood policy and its wider climate adaptation strategy.
Smith may not have mentioned climate change in his column (and in my view he should have done), but his uncontroversial assertion that we will face increasingly tough choices on flood defence spending simply echoes the warnings climate scientists have been making for years. Smith's warning was just a gentler version of Professor Colin Thorne's prediction last month that rising sea levels and climate change meant the Somerset Levels could not be defended between now and the end of the century. If climate projections are accurate, parts of the UK will succumb to the waves, just as other parts of the world will succumb to crippling droughts and increasingly deadly storms. We are kidding ourselves to pretend otherwise.
It is understandable that a prime minister keen to win marginal seats at an imminent election does not want to tell parts of the country that they cannot expect to receive indefinite protection from the rising tides. Understandable, but also misleading and more than a little cowardly.
The fact is that if climate scientists are even half right in their predictions (and remember, unlike some of his climate sceptic colleagues, David Cameron has repeatedly said he is confident they are much more than half right), extreme weather and climate resilience will become two of the defining issues of our age – the depressing flipside to the more positive defining issue that is the emergence of a low-carbon and sustainable economy. Responsible political leaders should be engaging with this tough reality, not ducking away from it.
We know with a high degree of confidence that sea levels will increase over the course of this century, flood risks will rise, as will drought risks – long-term investment and infrastructure decisions will need to be made with these projections firmly in mind. "Difficult choices" will indeed have to be made. To consider just one relevant example, the coastal rail line near Dawlish will eventually become unviable if rising sea levels continue and storms intensify.
Businesses understand that they are increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather risks and are making investments to their infrastructure and supply chains to improve their resilience. But when the prime minister willfully misinterprets a legitimate warning about the UK's future climate resilience and the communities secretary sets out flood protection plans without once mentioning the words "climate change", it is fair to ask whether the government is taking its responsibilities seriously?
Yesterday's new funding announcements were welcome, even if the plans for new flood defence schemes appear to have ignored the south west. But the charge sheet against the government's flood strategy is now worryingly long. Ministers may be spinning furiously to show that flood spending has increased fractionally when this parliament is set against the last parliament, but Labour is right when it says that spending this year will still be below the level recorded in the final year of the last government. Spending was cut by the coalition at a time when numerous independent experts advised that it should be increasing. The promise of increased funding during the second half of the decade is hugely welcome, as is the new funding to repair damaged defences, but it is a long way short of what plenty of scientific advisors reckon is needed if we are to protect every household and business from excessive flood risks.
Add in the failure to account for climate change in the FloodRe insurance scheme, the cuts to the Environment Agency flood management teams, the move to axe regular progress reports on the Pitt Review of flood management, the decision to remove councils' duty to prepare for climate change impacts, and the scaling back of Defra's climate adaptation team, and it is no surprise the coalition's insistence it is doing all it can to help flood afflicted communities rings more than a little hollow.
The fact is the government put a man who does not think climate change is a serious threat to the UK in charge of climate adaptation, cut the budgets of the departments and agencies tasked with leading the UK's response to climate risks, and is now insisting it is doing its upmost to protect the country from precisely the kind of weather climate scientists have warned will become increasingly prevalent. I doubt flooded businesses and communities will appreciate the irony – not to mention the local economies of those parts of the country now facing massive disruption.
Flooding will always happen from time to time. But the public response to climate impacts is a bit like a football fan's response to an unfortunate defeat – if you see everyone trying their damndest to succeed then you are more likely to forgive them if things don't quite work out, but if some players are clearly not trying or have not prepared properly then you are likely to be much less impressed. The stance of Paterson towards climate warnings and the decision of the coalition to cut flood defence budgets has burnt through much of the sympathy the public may have for ministers wrestling with extremely challenging events.
Politicians who profess to take climate change seriously, including the leaders of the three main parties, have a responsibility to do precisely that. Specifically with regards to flooding, that means finding a way, even within a tough fiscal climate, to provide flood protection funding that increases as flood risk increases. Just as it means undertaking a complete overhaul of upland catchment management to hold more water back in the hills and accepting that some areas cannot and should not be protected indefinitely from escalating flood risks. More generally it means properly integrating climate risk into infrastructure decisions and being brave enough to dispense with platitudes and admit to voters that these risks will continue to increase. It also means engaging properly with legitimate warnings about future climate risks and ensuring that those ministers tasked with leading climate adaptation efforts understand that it is work of national importance.
This government probably deserves a bit more credit than it gets for its (still at times imperfect) efforts to build a low-carbon economy, but the criticism it is facing over its approach to climate resilience is fully merited – in fact, I'm surprised the government and the media haven't been even more vocal in their condemnation. Unfortunately for all of us, there is nothing "false" about the difficult choices the government will have to make to bolster the UK's climate resilience. The prime minister's argument that the government has been doing all it can to tackle escalating flood risks is about as watertight as Dawlish's sea wall.
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