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Here Be Dragons

Fear and Denial On England’s Flood Plains

Much of the floods debate was just drowning idiots screaming at each other.

by Martin Robbins
24 February 2014, 10:15am

Image by Cei Willis

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously said that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Faced with an uncomfortable reality, she believed, our reaction is to reject it, to be angry at it, to insist that there are ways the situation can be resolved without hardship, and then to fall into depression as we come to realise the futility of our actions. Only when we finally accept the inevitable, can we begin to move forward.

For several weeks now, the women and men of the Environmental Agency have found themselves involved in two brutal wars. One is a conventional battle fought with soldiers and sandbags, defending out homes and communities from an unprecedented sequence of storms and rainfall. The other is an extraordinary propaganda war waged by a spitting rump of pundits and politicians against reality itself.

The solution to the floods, you see, is dredging – which is when you clear a river of the debris in it so that the water can flow more quickly. Not a single one of the armchair hydrologists suddenly infesting the stagnant waters of the punditsphere has put forward a shred of evidence to explain how this might be the case, but it’s easy and convenient and it pins the blame squarely on the group of people with the least political clout, the under-funded experts at the Environment Agency.

The nadir of this came on the politically-themed comedy panel show Question Time, when a UKIP contestant who remarkably wasn’t Nigel Farage could be found ranting about the “Environmental” Agency, and explaining theories on climate and hydrology that were about as plausible as her party ever having a coherent manifesto.

The problem with dredging is just basic maths, which is probably why so many politicians can’t understand it. Dredging the rivers of the Somerset Levels as a solution to flooding would be like if you poured the contents of the local swimming pool into your bath, then decided that the reason your house was under five feet of water was because you’d left some rubber ducks in the tub that were impeding the flow of the water. We’re not talking about rivers that were 10 percent or 50 percent or a 100 percent over capacity here, we’re talking amounts of water so vast that they could only be contained by the surrounding flood plain.

Clearing out debris isn’t a bad idea, though you have to be careful of the environmental impacts – the country bumpkins of the right would be the first to complain if they couldn’t fish any more – but it isn’t flood prevention. Not to mention that making the river go faster is basically saying a big "fuck you" to the village downstream that has to cope with even more water.

Of course, the beauty of dredging as a solution isn’t that it works. It’s that it allows politicians and pundits to ignore difficult questions that they really don’t want to address a year before the general election, like whether our planning policy is fit for purpose, where new houses should be built, or whether it’s right to continue encouraging farmers to make poor and damaging use of their land by paying them ludicrous subsidies.

And then of course there’s climate change denial, the intellectual herpes of the right. The very mention of the term seemed to bring the Conservative Party out in hives, as David Cameron found himself repeatedly undermined by a series of blundering ministers and MPs – backed by the odd Mail hack – who were so embarrassingly clueless that their own party leader had to tell them to sit down and shut the fuck up.

Students of irony were treated to the site of Adam Afriyie, my old MP, knee-deep in flood water, explaining to Channel 4’s Jon Snow that, “Today is not the day to talk about climate change.” Then there was the news – actually several months old – that Environment Secretary Owen Paterson had refused scientific briefings on climate change from government advisors, apparently content to wallow in the depths of ignorance. Extraordinarily, even "cabinet colleagues" were apparently briefing the Daily Mail on his "stupidity".

The most accurate comment came – accidentally – from the Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger, even as he tried to load blame onto the Environment Agency: "This never flooded to this level ever in living memory, and we've got people who have been here for a long time. If you look back into the mists of time you don't have this." Funny, that.

The epitome of angry denialism was a column by the Mail’s sketch writer, Quentin Letts; a confused man with wet feet screeching “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” at the global scientific community, even as it patiently and repeatedly explains their reality. Devoid of any real content or argument, Quentin was reduced to comparing himself to “all the great thinkers, from Socrates to Einstein, from Galileo to Marie Curie”, suggesting that climate change could be an EU conspiracy, and claiming that his views – calling for government to take the easy option and continue as normal – were a "progressive" attempt to challenge the "orthodox".

There are many ironies in Quentin’s hysteria, but perhaps the biggest one is his existential fear of taxes, and of those who seek to steal away the precious money he spends a few hours a week typing snarky comments about MPs to earn.  What people like Letts can’t – or won’t – grasp is that climate change levies far more taxes than the greediest politician could ever imagine.

The cost of climate change rarely appears as one neat sum on a ledger, it doesn’t come itemised on your shopping bill, but it’s exacted through trillions of tiny tolls and tariffs on almost everything you can conceive of: food prices, insurance premiums, defence budgets, welfare, utility bills, even the house prices Quentin’s colleagues are so inordinately obsessed with. We don’t notice them because individually they’re tiny and easy to ignore; but they accumulate in our economy and they multiply, a drag that grows with each passing year.

That’s what makes floods like these such a shock to the system – for the first time we begin to see the cost writ large, inflicted in one go. Of course it’s silly to ascribe this particular event to climate change, just as you can’t state with certainty that rolling any specific six was the result of a loaded die. But over time, these events will become more frequent.

People in Britain are now directly witnessing things like the meandering of the jet stream, the sequences of bizarre winters, the warming of the Atlantic, the weather becoming not just a quaint national obsession but the top issue on the political agenda. They are seeing these things on their TV screens and in their newspapers – the decent ones, at least – and unlike Quentin Letts they are not entirely stupid. 

It’s there that we hit the last wall of denial – denial of the fact that flooding is inevitable, that we cannot protect areas like the Somerset Levels, and that some communities are just going to have to adapt to the new reality or die. It will become harder and harder to protect southern England, and that means it will cost more and more money.

That said, things feel different now. The public’s support for action on climate change may be a little fickle at times, but it’s clearly growing. What’s perhaps more important is the political lessons that will be learned from the last several weeks. David Cameron was visibly embarrassed by the ignorance and in-fighting on display in his own party, and it’s hard to imagine a competent government of any colour allowing a repeat of the ham-fisted response we saw this winter.

Henry Porter wrote in the Observer last week that it was time for climate sceptics to "put up or shut up" – maybe I’m naively optimistic, but there are signs that the same line has been drawn in Westminster, with Cameron’s declaration that he "suspects" the floods are linked to climate change sending a clear message to his party.

Denial, anger, bargaining and depression have been visible in abundance on England’s battered flood plains over the last several weeks. Acceptance is slower to come, but we’re getting there, year-by-year, and it’ll be a relief when we can finally get over ourselves and get on with our lives.

Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins