There’s sewage in our living rooms. It’s time to get real about climate change.

Kit Jones & Danielle Paffard

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Kit Jones and Danielle Paffard from the Centre for Alternative Technology

As hundreds of thousands of homes and livelihoods were submerged by murky brown water and much of Britain ground to a halt, what was startling about the recent floods was not just the scale of devastation; it was the initial failure to link any of these extreme events to climate change, or meaningful action to mitigate it.


Cartoon by @cartoonralph.

The finger pointing about who did or did not dredge, the proclamations that ‘money is no object’ to sort flood defence provision (exposing the recent cuts in funding to environment agency to be even more short sighted and mind boggling than before) miss the point slightly for any of us concerned about climate change and the root cause of many of these problems. It is highly likely that storms and floods of the kind we have been experiencing will become more frequent and more severe. January looks like the wettest recorded in 248 years and the head of the Met Office has explained how this is likely to be linked to climate change, even if the extent of that link is difficult to calculate. Climate change has arrived and we need to start dealing with the consequences: increasing investment in flood prevention and management, planning for emergencies, ensuring that the vulnerable are protected. All this is vital but not enough by itself. If you’ll excuse the flooding analogy, it’s like providing more buckets to bail out your front room rather than trying to turn the tap off. Important in the short term (hence the political appeal), but all rather exhausting and inadequate in the long term.

Fortunately, that narrative has started to change, if only slightly. Some politicians – with notable interjections from Mr Milliband, Mr Cameron and Ed Davey (current energy and climate change secretary) have started making the links between flooding and climate change, and that is being reflected in media coverage linking the two. Research by Carbon Brief shows the proportion of flooding related articles mentioning climate change two weeks ago was only 7%; last week it had increased to 15%. A front page by Lord Stern, chair of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, announced that ‘climate change is here’ and something should be done. When Stern first told us in a major report in 2006 that the cost of climate change were likely to amount to between 5% and 20% of global GDP it was hard to picture what that really looked like. Sewage in your living room is somewhat easier to get your head around.

So optimists should hope that these floods, devastating as they have been, have the potential to trigger some bold political action on addressing the causes of climate change, as well as a credible plan for dealing with the consequences of past failure. Unfortunately, there remain some powerful voices who continue to be unhelpful. The most glaring anomaly is the man who sits around the cabinet table with responsibility for flooding: the current Environment Minister, Owen Patterson, who said when he visited CAT last year “The real question is: is climate change influenced by man-made climate change? The climate, the temperature has not changed in the last 17 years”. If those comments sounded naïve back in June, they are utterly terrifying now.

With voices like this at the top table it is little surprise that this government has watered down ambitions for the green economy. In January the EU set new targets for the contribution from renewable energy. Whilst Germany, France and others were pushing for ambition, the UK was lobbying for lower targets for renewables, preferring to usher in a new dash for gas. Nationally, we’re going for 80% reduction of emissions by 2050. This target was set by the last government with cross party support and legally binding milestones and three year budgeting. At the time it marked a significant step forward because it was the first time anyone had made such a strong, long term commitment. Britain looked like a leader and green industries started to develop here. It is now time to raise our ambitions again. The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that 80% cuts give us only a 50% chance of staying below the internationally mandated critical two degrees threshold, beyond which we experience ‘extremely dangerous’ climate effects, and the world becomes a very different place. As the gravity of the situation starts appearing in peoples everyday lives, and we are feeling changes scientists didn’t predict for another 20 years, we need politicians that are going to take action. Someone who understands the science, recognises the scale of the challenge, is brave enough to raise our ambitions and is able to explain the situation to the rest of the government and the country. At the moment, it doesn’t look as if that kind of leadership is really coming from anywhere in the government or opposition – not just the misguided Minister for the Environment.

So what are we doing at CAT? Rather than embracing political defeatism, the Zero Carbon Britain project calculates an emissions reduction pathway based on a pragmatic assessment of what the science suggests is necessary. As the first industrialised country, Britain’s total emissions through history are huge compared to most other countries, which gives us a special responsibility to lead the building of a society that doesn’t need to emit dangerous gases in the future. The technology exists to make that a reality by 2030; our Zero Carbon Britain report outlines how that society could work. Zero Carbon Britain is a hugely powerful tool for anyone campaigning for action on climate change. It dismisses the suggestion that big emissions reductions are either not possible or not desirable with a robust scenario for the kind of society that most of us would be happy to live in. 

While the challenge of getting to zero-carbon by 2030 is large and difficult, it is not insurmountable. It is significantly less difficult than the consequences of doing nothing, or not quite enough. If we are to build a bridge to a safe climate future, let’s make sure it gets us all the way across the gap. Finding ourselves only half way across a ravine doesn’t suit anyone.

How many more homes have to flood, and how many times? It’s time we started calling for more serious action on climate change.

Get involved

If you’d like a free copy of the Zero Carbon Britain report to send to your MP to stress this, please do get in touch at You can join the campaign for a Zero Carbon Britain here.

Greenpeace are calling on David Cameron to sack Owen Patterson – the environment minister that doesn’t believe in climate change, and Friends of the Earth ask for greater investment in flood defenses and the end of subsidys to fossil fuel companies.

If you want to start taking adaptation to climate change into your own hands you can join a course at CAT aimed at people in local government.

Kit and Danielle work at the Centre for Alternative Technology. Follow their blog, twitter and Facebook.

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  1. Posted by

    “The real question is: is climate change influenced by man-made climate change? The climate, the temperature has not changed in the last 17 years”. If those comments sounded naïve back in June, they are utterly terrifying now. Why? Has he said something untruthful? If there has been no warming for 17years – that may mean nothing. It may be not long enough to tell. Equally, one year’s weather may be not enough evidence to tell.

  2. Posted by David Pavett

    This piece begins with

    “As hundreds of thousands of homes and livelihoods were submerged by murky brown water and much of Britain ground to a halt …”

    Is this right? Can we have a reference to the data source used? I have looked up a few data sources on this (e.g. this Guardian piece) and it seems that the number of homes flooded in the recent events was of the order of 5000-6000. This was considerably less than the number flooded in the 1997 floods (55,000).

    I am all for warning about the dangers of climate change but I am also strongly in favour of have the case made on the bases of accurate data. Without that the field is open to the climate change deniers.

  3. Posted by Simon Norton

    We also need to link climate change to transport policies, and put into action a crash programme of providing a full set of alternatives to flying and car ownership, just as the NHS is rightly seen by most people as a full healthcare package. In particular we need to do a 180 degree turn from present policies of regarding local bus services as dispensible — with local authorities such as Somerset among the prime offenders.

  4. Posted by Stan Rosenthal

    Good to see climate change being discussed at this site. The campaigns mentioned in this article are doing a great job but as John Harris said in an article for the Guardian, what is lacking is a large body of opinion to spur the politicians into decisive action on this vital matter.

    The following petition is designed to do just that. It can be googled under Act NOW to stop catastrophic climate change.

    It is based on a BP study predicting a 29% increase in CO2 emissions by 2035 if we continue along the present path compared with the IPCC call for emissions to start falling by the end of this decade if we are to stand any chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change. In other words, there is now a desperate need to change course.

    I urge Compass members concerned about this issue to put their names to it.

  5. Posted by David Pavett

    It is to me truly bizarre that an article on an which relies to such an enormous extent on scientifically analysed evidence should itself apparently be immune from normal scientific criteria. I pointed out what seemed to me to be a glaring factual error right at the beginning of the article. I could be wrong of course but my challenge has met with a zero response. This is to the great discredit of those who believe in the reality of human induced climate change, among whom I count myself. If we can’t be bothered to be factually accurate then we might as well stop now.

  6. Posted by Stan Rosenthal

    Fair point David. Exaggeration is the enemy of reasoned argument, And there is no doubt that this is what has been done here to drive home the dangers of climate change. Regrettable but understandable given that most people will not contemplate changing their ways until they are faced with events of truly disasterous proportions.