Thursday, December 10, 2015
“It’s too early to say definitively whether climate change has made a contribution to the exceptional rainfall. We anticipated a wet, stormy start to winter in our three-month outlooks, associated with the strong El Niño and other factors.
“However, just as with the stormy winter of two years ago, all the evidence from fundamental physics, and our understanding of our weather systems, suggests there may be a link between climate change and record-breaking winter rainfall. Last month, we published a paper showing that for the same weather pattern, an extended period of extreme UK winter rainfall is now seven times more likely than in a world without human emissions of greenhouse gases.”
It is interesting to compare the recent Cumbria flooding with that other event she alludes to. Somerset experienced heavy rainfall and flooding just after Christmas 2013, which lasted into much of January 2014. It prompted David Cameron to claim that climate change was behind these floods.
The Met Office published a report in February 2014 stating that ‘In terms of the storms and floods of winter 2013/2014, it is not possible, yet, to give a definitive answer on whether climate change has been a contributor or not.’
Cameron did not repeat his statement last week (he may still decide to do so), despite Professor Slingo’s more confident (if still tentative) claim about such extreme rain now being 7 times more likely because of climate change (I leave aside if this reasoning is sound or not, it does not matter for the present context).
Why did Cameron change his tactics? After all, climate change is always a good excuse for inaction regarding climate change adaptation, deflecting attention away. The UK government has cut investment in flood defenses and would need to address structural issues within the agricultural industry, especially sheep farming on the fells which creates excessive water run-off in the first place. Reforestation of the hills should be a priority—but these a are long term expensive policies, not attractive to British Prime ministers.
So while in theory climate change could deflect attention from these problems that have nothing to do with climate change, Cameron opted not to repeat his Somerset claim about a link between the two. It could well be that he signals a change in direction from his government. With the imminent cut to subsidies for renewable energy while at the same time introducing taxation for them, there are reasons to believe that climate change will be of lesser importance to the UK government. It could signal that the UK sees itself less of a leader in global climate politics
Two years ago the floods were used to signal that the government takes climate change seriously (even if the argument was not supported by the Met office). Now the floods have become an embarrassment. Just at a time when Cameron announced in Paris that we should act today and not provide excuses tomorrow, the floods expose him for having failed to address the issue. Let’s be clear: He has failed to address adaptation to climate change in his own country. He might still be up for global mitigation, despite increasing pessimism from commentators about the alleged role of UK leadership in this process. But the timing of events has been very unfortunate for him.