As a child I once lived in Guyana in a house built on concrete pillars. This was a useful and essential precaution in a tropical country where a heavy downpour could flood the ground floor in a single afternoon. Many years later I visited Inle lake in what was then Burma, where the entire population lived on houses built on wooden stilts. I also worked in one of the drained polders that the Dutch had clawed back from the sea.
In all these cases, countries or communities that were accustomed to living with the threat of flooding and what we now call ‘extreme weather events’ adapted to the natural conditions they were faced with and devised ways of dealing with them. Much of Holland would not even exist had its population not learned over the centuries to manage the fact that two thirds of the country are below sea level. Today the Dutch are experimenting with ‘floating houses’ that will rise and fall according to the water level.
In the UK, such creativity is conspicuously absent at a governmental level, and the disastrous events of the last week have demonstrated once again an official unwillingness to take seriously the ongoing threat posed by climate change and global warming. In George Osborne’s autumn statement this year, the chancellor pledged to raise funding on counterterrorism by £3.4 billion over the next five years, a 30 percent increase that will raise overall spending on counterterrorism from £11.7 billion to £15.1 billion.
At the time Osborne said that this money would be spent on ‘keeping Britain’s streets safe, and avoiding ‘marauding attacks’ such as the one that took place in Paris. No one would dispute that every government has the responsibility to protect its citizens from violent attacks, but it is nevertheless striking how willing this government and so many others are to hype the threat of terrorism to a level of continual hysteria, while ignoring or downplaying the extent to which climate change poses a far greater threat to our collective security.
This discrepancy isn’t just a question of rhetoric. While spending on counterterrorism goes up, overall spending on flood defence has been cut back, in some of the same parts of the country where the current floods have hit hardest.
The government has also cut the Environmental Agency‘s budget from £846.7 million in 2008-2009 to a current figure of £ 709 million. It has imposed ‘unprecedented’ cuts on the fire and rescue service, which has impeded their ability to respond to the floods. This is the same government that routinely justifies any war as an attempt to ‘keep the country safe’, while actively undermining the ability of the population to protect itself against less convenient threats.
None of this is surprising. After all, this is a government headed by a man who once promised to lead the ‘greenest government ever’ before taking office, and then told his aides in 2013 to ‘get rid of all the green crap‘.
These priorities stifle the kind of creative and longterm thinking that might enable the country to adapt imaginatively and coherently to what is clearly going to be a serious and escalating threat for many years to come. There is no shortage of potential solutions available, and no shortage of models to learn from, but in order to consider them, we need to take the threat seriously.
Instead Tory MPs have chosen to turn the tragedy of the floods into yet another opportunity for xenophobia, by recommending spending development aid on flood defence – as if the two things were mutually exclusive. Naturally Nigel Farage has echoed the calls to spend overseas aid on ‘our own people’. And Simon Danzuk, an MP who embodies the absolute worst of New Labour has made the same recommendation. These calls have been recycled by the Tory press, particularly the Daily Mail – a newspaper that has been a vocal climate change denier for many years.
We should not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by these childish, spurious and politically-calculated distractions, and blame foreigners for our government’s inability and unwillingness to protect its own population. We have the imagination, the technology and the resources to prevent flooding or at least mitigate its destructive impact. But these solutions are unlikely to emerge from a ruling elite whose single overriding priority in everything it does is to reduce the state budget and transfer money into the hands of corporations and the already wealthy.
We need a real paradigm shift, and we need it quickly.
Otherwise the flooded cities of the north are likely to become nothing more than yet another testament to the inherent dysfunctionality of our ‘already existing dystopia’ and the grossly irresponsible and incompetent leaders who we have foolishly allowed to govern us.