Thursday, December 10, 2015

A sign of things to come?

Last week the North of the UK was hit by strong rain (storm ‘Desmond’) which led to massive flooding of various towns and villages, especially in Cumbria. As is routine in such cases, the question is asked if this has been caused by climate change. The Met office issued this statement by Professor Dame Julia Slingo, Met Office Chief Scientist:

“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.


hvw said...

Good topic. Maybe an attempt to disentangle things a bit:

Best estimates now say the chances of this flood to occur were increased by climate change by about ~40%. But how are these "real-time attribution" efforts helpful for anything? I would suggest that this is mostly scientific effort spent on raising awareness - a rather unconventional motivation for research. Could be discussed whether that is laudable or not.

Of course Reiner is right - climate change, in the sense that is now dealt with in Paris, has nothing to do with it. Because that is about changes that are going to happen over the next century.

As a matter of fact, this flooding just shows that GB is not properly adapted to the current climate. As Reiner points out that is related to regional / short-time political problems. And it nicely illustrates how Cameron et al are in denial / conveniently ignore scientific knowledge about floods. Hey, we can blame Labour and at the same time pretend to take action, make landowners happy and give a shit not only about flood prevention but about all that ecosystem / wildlife habitat / biodiversity hogwash at the same time. Triple-win. Just compare:

"The pause in dredging that took place in the late 90s – that was wrong. We need to get dredging again and I have said when the water levels come down and it is safe to dredge we will be dredging to make sure that these rivers and ditches can carry a better capacity of water." (Cameron)

with some background, the river-geomorphological essence of which you can also get from any Geography textbook.

If a wealthy and highly developed society such as GB's can't even adapt to current climate, how are the chances that corruption-ridden, dirt-poor developing countries can prepare (which is what is meant when the talk is about "adaption") for the coming catastrophic events against which "Desmond" is a breeze in a teacup?

Hans von Storch said...

Editorial comment: I noticed that in recent days more and more entirely legitimate comments (also of frequent commentators) ended up in the SPAM-box. I released them, but it may happen that I do not notice. In case, please make me aware by sending an e-mail to

Hans von Storch said...

Under the leadership of Geert-Jan von Oldenburgh a "fast track" event attribution exercise has been done, with the positive result that such events should be considered more probable under climate change than before - a technical summary is provided hre:
A scientific paper has been submitted (odf available from the link above).

Geert Jan said...

I would like to note that in that paper and the summary we try to emphasise that a lot of other factors than climate change play a role in the flooding. There appears to be a heated discussion on this in the UK, see eg

On the use of event attribution, from a completely logical point it is not necessary at all. Mitigation and adaptation should be based on projections, as the worst effects are in the future. However, people are not completely logical. They want to know why things happened, and this knowledge makes projections more acceptable. The question comes up all the time, we think we can give a scientific answer to it so we do, as a service to those who ask.

hvw said...

Geert Jan, thanks for chipping in!
My wording ".. how are these "real-time attribution" efforts helpful for anything?" was extremely sloppy. Of course that is helpful for something and you lay it out clearly. It's just that this motivation is somehow novel/unusual and I thought worth mentioning here, where the role of climate science in society is frequently discussed.

Also useful side-effects I suppose: The tooling you developed for that impressively speedy analysis must be good for something; I wouldn't be surprised if that showed up in Climate Explorer at one point ...

madadadam said...

Perhaps Camergoon didn't attribute the Cumbrian flooding to the Climate Change bogeyman, because he got such a kicking over Somerset, when it was demonstrated that the flooding there was wholey caused by lack of river dredging, mismanagement of water levels all caused by the Environment Agency's slavish following of Greenwash and the Met Office's faulty models and their predictions.
We in the UK have had an unusually dry period in the past half century or so. This, combined with increased population has lead to house building on inappropriate sites, flood plains & water meadows etc, plus inadequate river channel management, where a Newt is more worthy than a human.
This from The Times (paywalled)
Notes the following.
"Scientists have contradicted a minister’s claim that last weekend’s flooding in Cumbria was unprecedented and linked to climate change. They say that there have been 34 extreme floods there in the past 300 years and that lives had been put at risk by “grossly underestimating” the risk of floods and failing to consider evidence from records. "
"Tom Spencer a reader in coastal ecology and geomorphology at the University of Cambridge, said that analysis of deposits and floods in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries showed they were the 'biggest events". These floods happened long before the rise in manmade emissions, undermining the claim that last weeks floods were linked to climate change. He said that the Government relied too heavily on records dating back only 40 yrs"

One might even suggest that such inconvenient truths are being ignored for political reasons.