Climate change Britain – No more green and pleasant land

Mass flooding will threaten millions of homes and jobs.

Tribune – Labour’s left-wing weekly – 6 April 2007

By 2050, if climate change proceeds unchecked, England will no longer be a green and pleasant land. In between periods of prolonged scorching drought, we are likely to suffer widespread flooding. The trend is towards more sudden, very heavy downpours. Increasingly, huge swathes of the country could be waste-deep in water from wild storms and flash floods, like those at Boscastle in Cornwall in 2004 and in North Yorkshire two years ago.

Even more threatening, rising sea levels and tidal surges look set to swamp our coastal regions and some of our major cities. Parts of London could become a British version of Venice several times a year. The Thames Barrier will offer no protection. It, too, will be overwhelmed.

Most climate scientists predict a two to five degree increase in average global temperatures by 2100. As temperatures move steadily upwards in the coming decades, this will accelerate the already evident melting of snow fields, glaciers and polar ice caps, precipitating a one to three metre rise in sea levels during the second half of this century.

A mere one and a half metre rise in sea level would have a devastating effect on the UK . Within 70 years, large swathes of low-lying coastal and river estuary regions – such as Suffolk , Essex , Kent and Norfolk – are likely to disappear under the rising oceans. This will massively reduce agricultural production and force the mass migration of millions of flood-affected people. The size and shape of the UK landmass will shrink permanently. Many of the ‘surviving’ parts of the country will become prone to periodic large-scale flooding; either by tropical-style storms or by massive tidal surges.

Researchers at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology have calculated that changing weather patterns in Britain over the next two decades are likely to produce catastrophic mega floods every 10 years. In between, lower-level flooding will become routine – causing around £20 billion damage annually. Even these lesser floods will have a very significant impact on government finances and spending – and on the economy. But the mega floods that are predicted once every decade look set to cause an economic impact equivalent to a major war. The repair bill will soak up a huge proportion of public expenditure, which will mean less money available for other needs, such as health and education.

According to the Environment Agency, two million houses, five million people and £200 billion of economic assets are in areas already at risk of flooding. Despite these dangers, the government is pressing ahead with a massive house building programme on flood plains. This foolishness, plus climate change, means that the number of people at risk of flooding is expected to double by 2080. Millions of people will be flooded out time and time again. Their homes may become uninsurable and unsellable; leaving the owners facing financial ruin and causing a cataclysmic melt-down in house prices in flood-affected parts of the UK. Conversely, there is likely to be an astronomical rise in house prices in non-flood-prone areas, as people scramble to buy secure, unfloodable property on higher ground.

Britain could become a nation with millions of homeless refugees – people who have fled their worthless flooded homes in search of new accommodation in drier areas. This could provoke a wartime-like housing crisis. How will we cope with so many flood victims?

Cities situated near the coast and major rivers or canals – including London, Cardiff, Manchester and Liverpool – can expect to be periodically swamped by rising sea levels and tidal surges. This flooding will affect millions of people and could bring some of our great cities to a standstill for weeks at a time. The adverse effects on commerce will lead to redundancies, sending unemployment figures soaring.

In the low-lying regions of the country, such as East Anglia, flooding will affect both housing and jobs. Millions of people will not only have to move house, but also move jobs; causing huge economic dislocation and massive financial losses to both employees and to their companies. Many firms in lowland areas will be forced to relocate to other parts of the country to escape the regular ruination of flood waters. The whole economy is likely to suffer a big downturn, with a knock on effects on jobs, wages, savings and prices.

Power generation could be hit. Coastal nuclear reactors – at locations like Sellafield and Dungeness – will be at serious risk from rising sea levels, ocean storms and tidal surges.

Health dangers are likely to spiral, as antiquated sewage systems are unable to carry away the vast flood waters. Stagnant water could incubate epidemics like dysentery, cholera and typhus, and plagues of disease-carrying rats. This may lead to the contamination of reservoirs and underground aquifers; rendering much of our drinking water unhygienic and unsafe.

A high proportion of Britain’s most productive agricultural land is in low-lying regions that will become permanently submerged or prone to frequent violent flooding. Farming these areas may become near-impossible; resulting in a big drop in domestic food production. We will have to import more foodstuff, which will hit our balance of payments.

Economic chaos looms, unless we act soon. Existing government remedies don’t go far enough. What is required is the global equivalent of a Manhattan Project to reverse climate change by major cuts in carbon dioxide emissions from the four main sources: transport, industry, agriculture and domestic.

While the UK government is making loud green noises, its actions are weak and contradictory. The money raised by the air passenger duty is not being used to fund carbon cuts. It is just disappearing into the exchequer. The high cost of public transport is deterring people from giving up their cars. Labour’s pet schemes – congestion charging and road pricing – are expensive, inefficient ways to cut car use. Most of the revenue raised will be eaten up by administration costs and will not be used to fund cheap, safe public transport. The Environment Secretary David Milliband is green – but sadly only in the sense of being naïve about the policies needed to combat climate change.

* Next week: The devastating long-term global impact of unchecked climate change.