A few days back Tim Montgomerie (Opinion Editor and a columnist for The Times Newspaper) hit back at claims that recent extreme UK flooding meant we should act on climate change. He called such calls “alarmist” and assured his readership that we should keep listening to the likes of “Rational Optimists” Matt Ridley, Lord Lawson and Bjorn Lomborg. Their advice? Do nothing because Climate Change won’t be a big deal, it won’t damage us anytime soon and besides, we will be so much richer in the future that we will be able to afford this luxury then.
I was watching the BBC News last night and one man’s story really moved me. This young chap had just moved into his dream home near the Thames in Datchet. When the BBC caught up with him he was bailing out his house with a single bucket. Half way through his brief, on-camera, interview the man just stopped talking. Words had failed him. He mumbled his apologies to the journalist and turned away from the camera – clearly in distress. His father walked up to him to comfort him. Yes, a grown man crying. It was so desperately sad. My heart went out to him.
Climate change was always meant to happen somewhere else to somebody else in some future time. In the “2010 Floods and Water Act” the operating assumption by Defra, the Environment Agency and the local authorities was that climate change would not really kick in until the 2030s. Of course there is no evidence that the 2013/2014 winter’s extreme weather is directly caused by climate change but our experiement with inadvertent geo-engineering loads the dice. The British Met Office now confirm that what would have been a 1 in 125 year rainfall event in the 1960s is now more likely to be a 1 in 85 year event. The Met Office’s Chief scientist Julia Slingo has stated that “all the available evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”.
So what of the rational optimism of The Times newspaper’s comments editor? His way of thinking clearly represents the trap of unintended consequences. The point is this: 30 years ago we already knew that climate change was happening and humans were to blame. 30 years ago we assumed that doing something would be too expensive. We assumed that 30 years from then we would be so much richer and wiser that we would be able to afford higher sea walls and the new wonder-technologies to combat climate change.
So what happened? We hoped for the best and we got some wonderful new technologies – none of which was particularly useful. We cannot stop flooding with the latest iPhone. In the meantime we failed to notice that we already had all the technology we needed. We knew had to build wind turbines and solar panels. We knew how to do carbon capture and storage. We knew how to prevent floods using upstream land management techniques. We knew where the flood plains were and we knew not to build in them. Yet we did nothing. We did nothing because doing nothing is our default status. It is so much easier than doing something. Our politicians think in five year electoral cycles. They will always put action off until it is on somebody-else’s watch, somebody-else’s problem.
…but what happens when you put it off until tomorrow and then tomorrow happens? What is amazing in the default position of The Times is that it seems to have learnt nothing. It probably argued 30 years ago that we should do nothing for thirty years. Now thirty years later it is still arguing that we should do nothing for another thirty years. And where does this end? Where does the buck stop? When do we pay the bill? When do we grow up and accept that the reckoning will happen on our watch? OURS. Not our children’s and their children’s. It is now our responsibility – it is now time to act. In my lifetime I have lived to see British Climate change refugees. I MY lifetime – not just that of my daughter, or her daughter. My lifetime.
For every Bjorn Lomborg out there; there is also a Nicholas Stern or a James Hansen. If The Times wishes to continually cherrypick its experts then it will continue to offer unbalanced advice to its readers. Out in the world of serious debate about climate and economics they will find that the voices of Ridley, Lawson et al occupy a particular lunatic fringe. They are viewed as cranks. Why do cranks get so much attention? Because they offer credibility to our preferred option of doing nothing. Likewise what credibility would we have if we only listened to Greenpeace, the Green Party or James Lovelock? If you wish to confirm your own personal biases then the internet echoes to the sounds of a billion voices offering every shade of sage wisdom. You need only pick the one that suits your preference. But it probably won’t be good science let alone very wise economics.
One thing is certain. We will only be truly wise in hindsight. The rear-view-mirror gives the greatest clarity. There is nowt as blind as those who do not wish to see. I was involved in a Council planning exercise a few years ago. I kept an eagle-eye out for any signs that climate change adaptation was being worked on. The only sign I saw was a brief mention about road-planning. I don’t recall the precise details but there was a specific mention about how climate change would impact road surfaces. The logic went like this: climate change is global warming, it will get hotter. the roads will get hot and this might damage them.
That was it.
This narrow dialogue about the true impacts of climate change is currently where we are at. We think it might get a bit warmer. We are utterly unprepared for climate chaos. If there is any consolation to the people who have lost everything to the floods this winter it is this: we needed a shock to the system. We needed this focus. Water-logged fields don’t produce food. As sure as eggs-are-eggs we can guess that a drought will follow the flood. This will impact food prices. Insurance premiums will rise. As we retreat from the sea the price of land and new homes will escalate. This all has an economic effect. We will all be poorer because of climate change.
As soon as we accept that – and move beyond the current lethargy – the better. We have to stop the self delusion that we can put this on the never-never because tomorrow never comes. Tomorrow will come. It is already here.