When Sue Marshall was evacuated from her home in Fishlake, near Doncaster, after the town was flooded in November, she told the Guardian: “What we need to know is that in two months’ time, the MPs will revisit this and look at what has been done to stop it happening again.” Barely three months have passed since rains described by experts as a once-in-60-years weather event. Yet parts of Britain are once again underwater.
Some of the worst-hit areas, such as Rotherham, were also badly affected in November. The latest heavy rains, brought by Storm Dennis, have also devastated parts of Wales, with a “major incident” declared at the weekend after more than a month’s rain fell in 48 hours, leading to landslides and people being trapped in their homes. Pontypridd town centre was underwater and surrounding villages were told by the Met Office they could be cut off for days. Hundreds of warnings remain in place, while thousands of homes have been flooded. At least three people have been killed in storm-related incidents, including a woman who disappeared after her car got stuck in water near Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire.
Labour politicians reacted angrily on Monday to the announcement that, unlike during the election campaign in November, Boris Johnson would not be visiting flood-hit northern areas – and would instead be working in Kent. But the prime minister aside, are politicians and their officials doing as the people so badly affected hoped they would? Are sufficient measures being taken to reduce, as far as possible, the risk of future floods, and to mitigate the damage to people and property that they cause?
The simple answer is no. Global heating is recognised by the government as being among the causes of the UK’s increasingly destructive weather. George Eustice, the new environment secretary, said at the weekend: “We’ll never be able to protect every single household just because of the nature of climate change and the fact that these weather events are becoming more extreme.” Yet the UK is on track to exceed legally binding carbon emissions targets in 2025 and 2030, while the government has yet to set out how it plans to meet the new, more ambitious target of net-zero emissions by 2050.
If ministers are serious about trying to limit the dangerous consequences of temperature rises, both in the UK and around the world, they must devote a much greater share of resources and attention to climate and energy policies – which recent polling has shown to be among voters’ top-three priorities, behind Brexit and health.
Mr Eustice talks up recent flood prevention measures, and it is true that funding was increased following reckless cuts under previous prime ministers. David Cameron reduced the number of officials working on adaptation from 38 to six, despite warnings that flooding is the greatest climate-related risk to the UK. The two wettest winters on record were in 2013-14 and 2015-16, and scientists expect the pattern of disruption to continue.
But while it is essential not to lose sight of the overriding need to limit greenhouse gas emissions, especially in the run-up to the Cop26 conference to be held in the UK in November, adaptation and mitigation measures deserve attention too. Future-proofed planning laws that avoid building on flood plains, and more intelligent land and river management, which brings additional benefits to wildlife, can help to lessen the harm when rainfall records are broken again – and again.