The question is not whether we can say for certain climate change is causing the floods – it’s whether we want to take the risk that it is?
It’s hard not to despair of some of the debate in the UK concerning climate change. For an area where there is an established scientific consensus, our political debate often lags far behind. A surprising number of people, mostly – but not exclusively – on the right-wing of the political spectrum, are prepared to dismiss this scientific consensus in a way that finds no equivalent in any other contemporary political debate.
Some dismissers accept that temperatures are rising but won’t accept humans are causing it. Others accept this part but suggest it will have positive effects, or that adaption will be better than prevention. What all of them lack is a rational risk assessment of climate change and it’s consequences.
Of course there are things that we do not know about climate change. Climate scientists are very clear that we are not yet at the stage where we can identify climate change as the cause of specific weather events. But climate scientists are also very clear about what we do know: that the earth’s temperature has already risen significantly since pre-industrial times, that this process will get worse due to positive-feedbacks which amplify and accelerate change, and that the considerable efforts taken by the global community to determine whether it is human activity causing this has determined that we are 95% likely that it is.
But if we cannot attribute climate change to specific extreme weather events, how do we know just how bad (or not) it might be? The answer is we need to think in terms of the risks we are exposing ourselves too. From the end of the last ice age, we have enjoyed nearly 10,000 years of a climate that has proved extremely conducive to life on earth. We must now consider if we want to find out what the consequences of changing that climate will be, when we can reasonably anticipate it will involve intense problems and upheavals for a great many people.
Adapting to climate change is not without cost. Fossil fuels in the short-term offer a cheaper way to produce energy than renewables (though this will likely change at some point in the future as renewable costs fall with deployment and demand for fossil fuels grows in the developing world). However, adaption is not without it’s wider benefits either. The UK’s renewable energy resources provide valuable security of supply. Tackling Britain’s grossly inefficient housing stock is a guaranteed way to reduce emissions and bring down energy bills and fuel poverty. And low carbon technologies offer one of the best sources of new jobs for an economy like ours. Infact, the proportion of people currently employed in low carbon jobs in Britain is already equivalent to the proportion of people that were employed in steel production in 1850, at the height of the industrial revolution.
As the first industrial nation, there is a strong moral argument that we have a responsibility to be at the forefront of responding to climate change. But it’s also an area where it would be a gross mistake to be left behind – both China and the USA are investing heavily in renewables and other clean technologies, and the green economy is one of the few areas where we have a positive balance of trade with China.
But more than anything else the floods show us that, regardless of what is driving them, extreme weather events cause enormous damage in human and financial terms. It is surely untenable that we would take greater risks than are necessary when assessing how we can prevent this damage happening in future. That means taking climate change and the science behind it seriously, and rationally deciding – on the balance of risk – that we should do something about it.