After an unusually blustery autumn, including the worst gale since the “Great Storm” of 1987, one might have hoped that the worst was over, at least in the short term. Instead, more than 150,000 households had no power over the festive season thanks to pre-Christmas downpours, and there is yet more to come. The Environment Agency issued no fewer than 10 severe flood warnings on Thursday, cautioning of danger to life and property, and there are forecasts of driving rain, strong winds and high tides starting today and continuing into the weekend.
After sharp criticism about unprepared officialdom, the Government is no longer leaving anything to chance. The Environment Secretary stressed yesterday that, with another round of “exceptional weather” on its way, all agencies are on full alert. Indeed, so seriously is the situation being taken that Owen Paterson convened a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee to discuss a national response to yet more flooding. This time, it is the South and West coasts of England and Wales that are thought to be most at risk. Earlier this week, swathes of Scotland were under water. Before that, it was the South-east of England, Cumbria and North Wales.
Amid the destruction and heartache, the saddest fact of all is that a run of extreme weather should come as no surprise. Here, and across the world, the effects of global warming are starting to be felt. Just as last year began with a heatwave in Australia, 2014 is also being ushered in with the mercury at record highs Down Under. From the extreme floods across central Europe last June, to Typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful storm in history, which claimed more than 6,000 lives in the Philippines in November, the drumbeat of so-called “weather events” is steadily speeding up.
Climate change has slipped down the agenda thanks to the combination of an unexplained “pause” in global temperatures rises, a dip in carbon emissions as recession dampened industrial activity and public debt crises that focused attention on austerity over green investment. But if the past 12 months tell us anything, it must be that such complacency is unaffordable.
For all the protestations from the political fringes, controversy is waning. The UN’s most recent judgment is that global warming is all but certain to result from human activity. Even in Washington, where sceptics were once in the ascendant, the reality of climate change is no longer in doubt. There is still no global deal to curb carbon emissions, however, and progress at this year’s summit in Lima is vital.
Meanwhile, Britain’s travails might look mild set against the devastation in the Philippines. Even at its most violent, our weather is temperate by comparison. We can also afford to defend ourselves. But we must do so. That means power companies beefing up their infrastructure and ensuring that maintenance teams are on hand to tackle problems. Even more importantly, it means a detailed survey of our flood defences.
Surrounded by the waterlogged ruins of Christmas, the Prime Minister pledged to make such investments a priority. But he will need to do more than talk. When the latest storm passes, and the Cobra committee disbands, the real work to make sure that Britain is better prepared must begin.