Home > Uncategorized > Holding the Line: the politics of our watery future

Holding the Line: the politics of our watery future

IMAG0501On Wednesday, 17th June, the biggest ever mass lobby of Parliament by climate campaigners took place, organised by the Climate Change Coalition. It was a huge success, with over 9,000 people petitioning hundreds of MPs about the actions needed to avert catastrophic climate change. I was sorry to be unable to attend that mass lobby, but I did talk about climate change as much as I could during the recent 2015 general election campaign, and here is an edited version of a speech I gave during Waterweek at Hertsmonceux Castle in March 2015:

We’ve all heard about the story of King Canute and his attempt to stop the waves. Actually he didn’t really intend to stop the waves. The first written account of the Canute episode was in Historia Anglorum (The History of the English People), written by Henry of Huntingdon, who lived within 60 years of the death of Canute (1035 AD), and according to this account, the king had himself and his throne carried down to the shore, where he ordered the incoming waves not to break upon his land.

When his orders were ignored, he pronounced: “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless and there is no King worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven and earth and sea obey eternal laws,” (Historia Anglorum, ed D.E.Greenway).

This story is probably a clever piece of political propaganda by King Canute or his supporters, designed to emphasise the religious piety and humility of Canute himself through this symbolic demonstration of how even a king cannot overcome God and his natural laws. The story is a legend, and there is no historical evidence for it actually happening, but it is indicative of King Canute’s wish to be seen as a pious king, humble enough to accept that there are things beyond his control, principally nature. If the sea is rising and the tide is coming in, then ultimately not even a King can stop this force of nature.

But now the seas are rising far faster than in King Canute’s time, and the tides and storm surges are becoming remorselessly higher and stronger. All the governments of the world within the United Nations recognise this and the science behind the global warming that is driving the rising seas is available in the many Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. There is now a consensus that unless drastic action to reduce carbon emissions is taken soon, then the chances of even adapting effectively to the rising seas will be swept away by the sheer pace and scale of runaway climate change. But the trouble with the IPCC reports is that it takes so long to produce one that the science in the report is out of date by the time it’s published! The latest report, which took 7 years to compile, says that sea level will rise by at least 1 metre by 2100, which sounds bad, but not disastrous and 2100 seems reassuringly far off. Yet the latest science is showing that positive feedback loops are kicking in and accelerating the pace of sea level rise to a level predicted in the most pessimistic scenario of the IPCC, which shows that sea level could be 2 metres higher by 2100, double the 1 metre increase that the government is assuming! To put that in context, most of the Pevensey Levels, and Eastbourne itself, is less than 1 metre above sea level. And this rise in sea level takes no account of the fact that storm surges are several metres higher than whatever the average sea level is! Furthermore, the Sussex coast is slipping into the sea by several millimetres every year, increasing the impact of sea level rise. Yet a trawl through the various flood risk planning documents of our local authorities show a profound lack of awareness of the acceleration in the pace of climate change and sea level rise, and a consequent insouciance about how effective current planning is. For example, one document about the South Foreland to Beachy Head Strategic Management Plan says, in effect, that sea level rise will be just over 1 metre  by 2115, and that therefore the plan “with respect to tidal flooding is to ‘hold the line’ for the next 100 years. Consequently no reduction in the design standard of tidal defences protecting Eastbourne should occur as a result of climate change as the defences are planned to be maintained to prevent flood risk increasing with the effect of climate change”. Even assuming enough money will be pledged to maintain the existing flood defences (a big political ask!), it’s breathtakingly over-optimistic of the planners to assume that just tweaking the existing sea defences will be enough to cope with such a rapid and ever increasing pace of sea level rise!

The Canute story is said to have taken place on Thornbury Island in the Thames. That island is where Westminster now stands, a richly ironic twist given that Westminster is now having to ‘hold the line’ with regards to both its own political legitimacy and the crumbling architecture of the Houses of Parliament itself! The Palace of Westminster only survives because of London’s embankments and flood defences, which themselves only survive and get improved through the easy access to power and finance that London, the wealthiest part of the UK, provides. The political importance of Westminster, as well as London as a whole, guarantees that London will always receive the best possible flood defences, and if the Thames Barrier becomes increasingly ineffective in protecting London, as will happen within the next few decades, then a new, improved Thames Barrier will be created. Already plans are on the drawing board for creating such a barrier. But the onrush of new data on sea-level rise indicates that even a new Thames barrier will be increasingly less effective even before it is finally built. This creates a nightmare in planning and flood risk management. Anyway, London will get the very best flood defences money can buy, because London is where the big money is.

But what about elsewhere? What about Eastbourne? Again, the lucrative seafront of Eastbourne will probably get the very best of local flood defences, but what about the areas around Eastbourne? What about the Pevensey Levels and the towns and villages around the Levels? There simply will not be the political will and the financial resources to defend every area, to ‘hold the line’ in every place where hold the line is the declared strategy, especially given the government’s present miserly spending on flood defences (the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s own official advisors, report that spending on flood defences is  £500 million per year less than what it should be to maintain and improve the country’s flood defences in line with the rising risks from climate change). What then? How does one begin to make the political choices about priorities, about what to defend and where to beat a managed retreat? Given the pace of sea level rise, that kind of debate should start now, as indeed it has in London. But it has not started here in Eastbourne, even though it has started next door in the Ouse Valley between Lewes, Newhaven and Seaford! Why?

It is a political decision to even start having a debate and political leadership has to be exercised to initiate such a debate. The EU showed that leadership by giving funds for the Environment Agency’s Coastal Communities 2150 Project; yes, there are some benefits to being in the European Union! There is now a lively, at times sparky, debate in the lower Ouse Valley area, and there is an ongoing engagement with local communities and local political representatives to begin to deal with the realities of sea level rise and the implications of that for how people can live and work in a physically changing valley. There is therefore a real hope that such a debate will lead to truly informed, evidence-based decisions in a timely fashion that will allow the residents of the valley to decide exactly where to hold the line and where to beat a managed retreat, as well as how to not only adapt to climate change but also to enhance the local environment.

And here’s the thing; it turns out that although climate change is the biggest challenge ever to human flourishing, the things that need to happen to meet that challenge are exactly the sort of things which help create a safer, cleaner, healthier, stronger communal future for all! For example, planting more trees to aid water retention, prevent flooding, and increasing the locking in of carbon into soils; the creation of local wildlife and wetland areas around towns and villages to store flood water; the redesign of houses and factories to be more resilient to flooding incidents; the installation of renewable energy systems to create power and heat, together with energy saving and energy efficiency measures, to reduce carbon emissions and fuel bills at the same time; the creation of safe cycling and pedestrian infrastructure to help reduce air pollution from road traffic and encourage people back to a healthier lifestyle; and so on. A zero-carbon society is both possible and better than the society we have now. All that is needed is the political will. Just as our parents and grandparents generated the collective will to win the Second World War and save the free world from fascist tyranny and in the process created the post-war New Jerusalem of a welfare state and NHS for the immeasurable benefit of us all, so we can follow their example and come together in our communities to help build the climate-resilient world of tomorrow that will increase everybody’s well-being.

So Eastbourne, which is every bit as much in the front line of climate change as Seaford and Newhaven needs the kind of political leadership that led to the Coastal Communities 2015 initiative next door in the lower Ouse valley. So far it is not forthcoming. I once attended a local community environment panel meeting and asked if Eastbourne had a climate adaptation plan. Amused, wry grins erupted around the table, especially on the faces of the councillors and council officials present, and the answer I got was: this is it! The panel, which has no budget and no legislative or executive power of its own, no premises of its own, no staff of its own, and which only meets a few times a year, mainly attended by volunteer community representatives and very poorly attended by the statutory agencies invited to come along, is expected to be the ‘climate adaptation plan’! Of course, to be fair to local councils, the government scrapped the legal requirement for them to develop such plans, slashed the number of people at DEFRA working on climate adaptation to less than 20 for the whole country, while massive cuts to local council grant funding by central government has meant that developing such plans are the least of council worries when faced with the savage cuts in public services they have to make anyway! Thus does the political process undermine the readiness of Eastbourne and other places to prepare for the reality of climate change. Political choices are being made now that will have dramatic impacts in years to come, especially when flooding incidents occur.

But whatever the extent of skilful local adaptation to climate change that is achieved, we will still be in the Canute-like situation of having to accept that whatever decisions we make, nature will always have the final word, and that climate change will always defeat our adaptation measures if we are not humble enough to accept the signals nature is giving us. And the biggest signal nature is sending us is that if we do not drastically reduce carbon emissions right now and reduce them fast enough to keep the global warming to under 2 degrees centigrade,  the pace of climate change will eventually overtake whatever adaptation measures we take, no matter how fast we adapt and no matter how much money and energy we expend on that adaptation. Which is why the climate talks in Paris this December are so important. For time is not on our side. Whatever debate we have about mitigating climate change is taking place against the backdrop of increasingly intense and frequent climate change impacts, such as the wettest winter ever that we experienced in the winter of 2013/14, a winter which very nearly saw the overtopping of the Pevensey Bay sea defences. That was a close call then, and there will be very few close calls left before the inevitable storm surges sweep away our military mind-set of ‘holding the line’ wherever we feel we should.

During my work as a volunteer environmental campaigner for Friends of the Earth, and my brief time as a parliamentary candidate for the Green Party locally during the 2015 general election, I frequently had to confront denial about the very existence of human-induced climate change, as well as confronting the lack of awareness about the fierce urgency of dealing with climate change now rather than later. Fortunately, most people do understand that climate change has to be dealt with, but it’s important to emphasise the politics of hope, not fear. Whatever the grave risks of climate change, there are huge opportunities that arise from meeting the challenge of climate change. The rising seas have to be met by us, the people, rising to that challenge. And because climate change changes everything, that means we have the chance to make everything change for the better and create a fairer, healthier, more equal, and more just society in the process. But it requires everybody to get on board, show political leadership in ways of their own choosing, and work together for the safe climate future that is the most important common good of all. We cannot just leave the challenge to our elected political representatives alone. We, all of us, are the people we’ve been waiting for to save us all, both present and future generations, from the risings seas!

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  1. June 19, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    Have you looked at my blog http://www.clivelord.wordpress.com?
    I suggest a Basic (Citizens’) Income as a part of the strategy to keep economic activity within the limits necessary to avoid continuing sea level rises.

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