Posts Tagged ‘flooding’

thinking today about the day after tomorrow…

January 6, 2017 Leave a comment


January 6th: the first day of my body feeling better gives me real hope that my illness is coming to a gradual end. That buoyed me up for yet another local walk, once again circling around the local church here in Westham, a 1,000 year old church still mostly surrounded by local lanes and open fields that presumably are little changed from centuries past.

What I find fascinating is the huge disconnect between what climate science tells us about climate change and its potential impacts, and the state of political discourse about what to do about climate change. On one side climate scientists, and campaigners advocating action on climate change, are united in their assessment of the urgency and scale of the challenge of slowing down global warming, whilst on the other side, the reactions of political establishments across most of the industrialised world is to either deny climate change outright (as a Trump administration will apparently do) through to a weak, slow acceptance of climate change as a problem to be dealt with, but in good time and in a way that should not be allowed to impact upon existing business models that are deemed essential to maximising economic  growth. The disconnect is so stark, so widespread, and so entrenched, that it takes me some while to get my head around how impressive this disconnect is. I’ve heard of psychological states like ‘denial’ and ‘cognitive dissonance’ – indeed, I studied them at university and in my psychiatric nursing career – but to see such disconnect on a societal, indeed, global, scale is just awesome, and makes me think that maybe Freud was right when he postulated a new urge within the human psyche: thanatos, the ‘death drive’.

Today I read about how this climate disconnect is likely to play out as clashes between various environmental campaigners and the Trump administration in the first few months after Trump’s administration.

Meanwhile, I also read today that the Gulf Stream Drift that gives us in the UK a relatively mild climate system for our northerly latitude, has slowed down very significantly in the last century and is likely, as climate change progresses, to slow down much more to a point where it might stop altogether if a ‘critical desalination point’ is reached. This phrase was used in the Hollywood movie, The Day After Tomorrow, which I often think about because it’s one of the few movies that show very realistically how dramatic the disconnect between climate science and the political establishment can be, and how that disconnect can lead to not only a profound denial of the ‘fierce urgency of now’ with respect to climate change, but also lead to a lack of effort in building up the resilience and adaptation measures that can help society deal with climate change impacts.  Those impacts will apparently lead to strong storms hitting the UK with greater frequency and intensity, leading, for example, to the sort of catastrophic, widespread, record-breaking flooding events we’ve seen in the UK in quite a few winters since 2000.

That will lead to great changes in the area I live; indeed, some of the places shown in the photos I’ve posted on this blog over the last few days will be either under water or on the edge of the sea, if big enough storms destroy the fragile sea defences on the south coast of England, only a couple of kilometres from where I live. That adds both a piquancy and poignancy to my local walks, as I can’t avoid thinking about how inherently transient are the landscapes I pass through. That’s both a spur to appreciate them more for what they are right now, through a deeper application of mindfulness and a deeper sensory engagement with the landscape, but also a stirring of a bittersweet cocktail of present joy and anticipatory sadness at future loss. That emotional cocktail is both full of creative potential and a psychological challenge to be handled with as much care and skill as I am, hopefully, capable of. Game on…

As ice-shelves calve and ice-sheets melt,

Far away in the polar regions,

Here, now, plebeian struggles to melt icebergs of climate indifference

Amongst the senates and forums of this world

Race towards a dramatic climax before the curtain falls.



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Eastbourne’s climate emergency

July 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Coastal Areas - Stats

We all know that climate scientists are saying that global warming is causing significant climate change and that this will have severe impacts upon the UK. We also know that weather extremes are becoming more frequent and intense, and this was dramatically illustrated by the ‘wettest winter ever’ that we had in 2013/14. We also know that the melting of the ice caps is leading to a rise in sea level which threatens the viability of coastal town and cities around the world, including the UK. But up until now the predictions for sea level rise have been worrying but apparently safely beyond the time horizon of most of us living today; the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a sea level rise of about 1 metre by 2100. Difficult, but not impossible to cope with, given enough money and political will for adaptation measures like improved sea defences.

But that has probably all changed now: a new paper by a group of climate scientists, the most famous of which is James Hansen, was published last week which predicted that sea level rise may become exponential and increase by as much as 3 metres within the next 50 years. If true, that is a game-changer, a potential death-knell for many towns and cities around the world, including Eastbourne. A large part of Eastbourne and its surrounding countryside is at, or just above sea-level, and was always going to face a challenge adapting to a 1 metre sea-level rise, but now it is facing the truly enormous, possibly insurmountable, challenge of a 3 metre sea-level rise within the next 50 years! That is a real existential challenge for Eastbourne, a real call to arms for the urgent action that is needed not only to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon emissions as quickly as possible but also to implement the adaptation measures that will be needed to protect the lives, homes, and businesses of Eastbourne residents. Adaptation planning has to start now and proceed in all seriousness, not only at local government level but across the whole local community. There is no time to waste, as 50 years is not long at all when it comes to defending an entire town from the power of nature unleashed on this scale! And bear in mind that long before the 50 years is up Eastbourne will be feeling the effects of the rapid sea level rise through more frequent and more intense storm surges that will be much bigger than 3 metres! The Pevensey Bay sea defences very nearly got over-topped in the storms of last winter!

  • an Eastbourne Flood Forum should be established urgently, along the lines of the successful Coastal Futures Group set up in the Ouse Valley, bringing together all community and business representatives and statutory bodies, to look at adaptation options and flood protection measures.
  • there should be an immediate ban on all new building projects in Eastbourne anywhere below 1 metre above sea level, and building anywhere up to the 3 metre mark should only be allowed if the very best flood protection measures can be demonstrated.
  • there should be urgent discussions undertaken with the Environment Agency and other relevant government departments to look at what help can be provided to Eastbourne in developing the most robust flood protection measures possible, and how vital transport infrastructure, like the south coast railway, can be better protected. That help must include a significant increase in the funding available for improving flood defences and whatever additional flood protection measures may be needed.
  • Eastbourne should form alliances with other coastal towns in the UK and around the world to share information and advice on how sea level rise and its impacts can be adapted to.
  • Eastbourne should start thinking the unthinkable and start looking at which areas of the town are just too difficult to defend in the long term, planning now for the gradual evacuation/reconfiguration of those areas.

These are just some initial ideas and no doubt the above list can be extended or altered as discussion about the urgency of flood protection for Eastbourne gets underway. But a meaningful conversation that leads to meaningful action we must have, and we must have it now!

Of course, the paper by Hansen et al has only just come out, and the peer-review process on it has only just begun, with the predictions of the paper possibly turning out to be not quite as valid as the paper’s authors claim. But the paper is based on the latest real world observations and data, much of it available only after the IPCC published its latest report. Most of that data indicates a speed of ice melt that is far larger and far more rapid than even the most pessimistic predictions of the IPCC indicated. Already the first peer-review of the paper praises its thoroughness and the depths of its insights. So the probability is that the climate science will be more on the side of  Hansen and his colleagues than it will be against. And anyway, the 3 metre sea levels rise prediction is a serious prediction by serious climate scientists based upon a thorough review of all the available evidence. So it should be taken as a serous possibility and acted upon seriously by all those concerned about the future of Eastbourne. We knew we were all in a climate emergency, but now we know that Eastbourne is about to go into the intensive care unit of the climate A&E!

Holding the Line: the politics of our watery future

June 19, 2015 1 comment

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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