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Floods reveal rottenness of government cuts
Climate change policy failure
Commenting on the most exceptional period of rainfall since records began 248 years ago, the Met Office's Chief Scientist, Julia Slingo, has said that "all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change" and "there is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events".
She was introducing a Met Office report that links the floods to unusual weather in other parts of the world.
Variations in the North Atlantic and Pacific jet streams, (the powerful currents of air high in the atmosphere that drive weather systems), are connected to the present extreme weather in Europe and America.
In turn, these are partly a result of changing weather patterns in South East Asia and 'associated with higher than normal ocean temperatures in that region'.
The flip-side of the unprecedented rainfall in Britain and Western Europe, is drought elsewhere. California is experiencing its worst drought on record, following similar events in Australia and South Asia.
Studies of the worldwide pattern of extreme weather are making it ever clearer that human induced climate change is behind what is happening.
David Cameron has said he 'suspects' there is a link to climate change, but puts forward policies that will make it worse.
The centre of the government's energy policy is to promote fracking, alongside a massive expansion in the number of gas-fired power stations.
If these are allowed to go ahead, it will give a big twist to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
Ed Davey, Lib Dem climate change minister, has now come out and attacked the Tories for not taking global warming seriously, conveniently forgetting that he was the author of the programme to bring in fracking and remains an enthusiastic supporter of the technology.
As well as pushing an anti-green energy programme, Cameron's administration cut the money needed to deal with the consequences of climate change.
In October last year, it was announced that the Environment Agency (EA) would be losing 1,400 jobs including 500 staff in the key service of flood risk management.
The effect on flood defences will be even greater than the loss of 500 staff suggests, since the crucial flood incident response role in the EA is carried out by staff from all functions, who provide an out-of-hours service, according to Kevin Warden from Prospect, the union that represents many EA staff.
Moving staff from other areas is also not a solution since they have critically important jobs such as radio-active waste management.
In 2009, the EA asked for £500 million extra over 25 years to deal with the consequences of climate change - this was flatly rejected.
In addition to EA job cuts, capital spending on flood defences was axed, from £680 million in 2010 to £533 million in 2013-14.
The rules on funding for flood defence were also changed to make it far more difficult to justify any expenditure, so that any scheme would have to show that £8 of financial benefit would result from every £1 spent.
Labour attacks on the Con-Dems ring hollow, since they were planning massive cuts to the EA if they had won the 2010 election, as well as rejecting the call for extra climate-change related funds in 2009 when they were in power.
Since the floods are affecting many affluent Tory voting areas, Cameron went into a panic and said that 'unlimited' funds will be available for dealing with the crisis.
It remains to be seen what Cameron's pledge will amount to. The government is already backtracking with the transport minister saying that there is "no blank cheque", and in the House of Commons on 12 February, the prime minister said nothing about reversing the job cuts at the EA, when challenged.
The extra £110 million announced two weeks ago will hardly restore the cuts made in 2011.
Whatever money does materialise, where it should go has been a controversial question. The obnoxious Tory MP Eric Pickles, temporarily in charge of the environment department, has said it was a mistake not to have dredged the rivers, which was based on the advice of 'so-called experts' in the EA.
This ignorant comment has been turned into government policy, although the evidence is that dredging would have made little difference to the flooding in Somerset.
In some circumstances dredging can make matters worse, since it can facilitate the flow of water from upland areas to cause more flooding downstream in built-up areas.
What is required is a long-term answer to the problem of flooding. First and foremost, this means tackling the root causes of climate change by switching to renewable energy, which could reduce the intensity of weather events, such as storms and floods.
Decisive action in this area, although crucial, will take decades to have an effect, so action is needed now to increase the capacity of the countryside to absorb rainfall, which has been significantly reduced by over-intensive agriculture, as well as strengthening flood defences.
Clearing uplands for sheep grazing has reduced the capacity of the land to absorb rainfall. Research has shown that full reforestation could reduce flooding peaks by 50%.
A policy to increase the capacity of the earth to hold water has been rejected by Cameron, in favour of dredging, but reforestation to deal with flooding is a policy supported by his own government in the tropics through the Department for International Development.
Counting the cost
In Britain, by clearing uplands, farmers can qualify for lucrative grants from the EU Common Agricultural Policy.
This incentive has driven deforestation of huge tracts, since land covered by trees is not eligible for subsidies.
At an early stage, the insurance cost of the floods was put at £750 million, but this will rise rapidly as the crisis develops.
The overall cost to society and the economy will be many times the insurance claims. Food production will be hit by having vast areas of agricultural land under water for up to six months.
Combined with a similar situation in North West Europe, and with droughts elsewhere, such as in the USA, there could be big rises in food prices again, cutting living standards, and hitting the poorest in society the most.
Until the present storms hit, the floods of 2007 had been almost forgotten by the establishment, but their cost was huge, £3 billion in insurance claims alone.
Despite all this evidence of the enormous cost of extreme weather events, not to mention the human misery inflicted, the government still takes no serious action to address climate change, which is the most probable cause of the deep intensity of the storms.
In fact, until the present situation developed, green issues had been buried, with the notorious statement coming from Cameron's office to 'dump the green crap'.
The present devastation will probably force the ruling class to take some short-term measures to adapt to climate effects, but they will fight any move to seriously tackle climate change itself.
The big corporations will lobby to stop any action that could in any way affect their profits, whatever the environmental cost to society.
There is nothing natural about disastrous cuts
Paul Couchman, Secretary of Save Our Services in Surrey
In recent months trade unions and residents in Spelthorne, North Surrey, have been campaigning against Surrey County Council's (SCC) plans to cut fire services in the borough by half.
Save Our Services in Surrey (SOSiS) has been at the heart of the anti-cuts campaign. Residents associations, the Fire Brigades Union and many local councillors have all been strident in their opposition to the cuts.
Just a few days after the Tory council cabinet voted through these cuts on 4 February, Spelthorne (and the surrounding areas) have seen the worst flooding for 250 years. Up to 10,000 people have been displaced from their homes.
Thorpe Park is being used to house evacuated people. The army have taken over one of the biggest council offices (the Runnymede Centre) to use as a base for their rescue operations and the local Fire and Rescue services have been working day and night to support, defend and rescue local people, along with colleagues from other areas like Northamptonshire and Norfolk.
A raft of MPs and party leaders have visited the area. A floating raft would have been more useful! Most of these dignitaries have been harangued by devastated and angry local people who believe any help has been too little too late.
Cuts in the Environment Agency have been a hot topic in the local press and the wisdom of cutting fire and rescue services is now being seriously criticised.
Local Tory MP Philip Hammond said any debate about flood policy and the cuts should wait for a 'slower time' while the immediate crisis was dealt with.
Flooding also seems to be a class issue. Troops were deployed in Datchet almost immediately (could this be because it is near to Windsor and Eton where the very rich, business people, bankers and politicians live and are 'educated'?).
Just down the river and under as much water, are the less exclusive areas of Wraysbury and Staines. It took a few outbursts on the TV news from local residents about the unfair distribution of help before similar mobilisations came down river.
One thing is clear. The government and local councils were totally unprepared for these floods. Cuts to dredging of rivers, flood defences, council staff and fire and rescue services are being shown to be a totally false economy.
SOSiS will continue to fight to defend and improve all local public services.
Osborne's austerity is jeopardising the environment
A Unison rep in the Environment Agency
It seems a lifetime ago, but cast your minds back just over 18 months and Britain was in the grip of the worst drought for 100 years.
Fast forward to 2014 and we've witnessed some of the most extreme weather events on record.
At the forefront of this battle against the elements is the Environment Agency and its workers who have been on the frontline almost non-stop since last November.
Thousands of staff have been involved erecting defences day and night, warning communities and offering expert advice on how best to protect properties.
Thousands more have helped run 24-hour incident rooms and cover other duties such as pollution prevention and waste crime as the Environment Agency staff have pulled together.
It is particularly galling then that during all these efforts, the self-professed 'greenest government ever' of the Con-Dems is hell bent on sacking 1,700 staff across the Agency as Defra (the government ministry) seeks to deliver its cuts for Osborne's austerity package.
Essential activities which safeguard our environment are all in the firing line - no department is immune.
While some give assurances that the Agency can absorb these cuts without impacting on delivery, we know the real story that the ability to protect and enhance the environment will be severely curtailed.
Those areas hit particularly hard will include the prevention and prosecution of waste crime, monitoring and protection of migratory fish, pollution management and work with planning authorities to ensure safeguards are in place for new developments - it will effectively be a "licence to pollute" for unscrupulous operators.
The Con-Dems should implement an immediate moratorium and reversal of cuts within the Agency and recognise that the cost of responding to incidents is much greater than the effective prevention which the cuts would compromise.
Prime Minister David Cameron now says "money is no object" when it comes to the floods relief effort, but how much has been spent on flood prevention?
Flood defence spending went into reverse after the 2010 austerity budget by almost £100 million a year.
Before Osborne's spending cuts the Treasury set a cost benefit criteria of every £1 spent resulting in £5 quantifiable benefit in alleviating flood damage. New rules mean that now, every £1 spent has to result in £8 of benefit.
Consequently, hundreds of flood defence projects were scrapped or are now seriously underfunded, including those on the Somerset Levels.
This underfunding contrasts markedly with the Netherlands where the government spends four times as much per capita on its flood defence infrastructure.
Yet the cost to economic output in the storm and flood affected areas of the UK could amount to nearly £14 billion.
In terms of spending on flood defences then clearly money is an object as far as the Con-Dem government is concerned.
Only after private insurance companies threatened to withdraw cover for 350,000 homes last June did the government agree an increase in flood defence funding.
Planning for the Planet: How Socialism Could Save the Environment
by Pete Dickenson
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In The Socialist 19 February 2014:
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