It is always easy, in any crisis, to blame the government for doing the wrong thing, or not doing enough of the right things. What is clear now is that the immediate priority must be to repair the damage and help the affected people.
Traditionally, weather is a popular topic of conversation in the United Kingdom. To be more accurate, it is a subject of comment, which is essentially not meant to be taken seriously, rather like inquiries about health. The question “How are you?” is no more than a form of words, which does not require any answer other than “And how are you?”
During the past seven or eight weeks, things have been quite different where weather is concerned. Many parts of the country have been suffering from terrible — and virtually unprecedented — conditions. Gale force winds and great downpours of rain have had a disastrous effect. There have been floods —many homes have had to be evacuated. Farmers have had to move their cattle, and in many cases have had great difficulty in finding food for them. Along the coast of the south and west of the country, huge waves have done great damage. One railway station, for example, has been effectively destroyed. Rail connections with the far west of the country, Devon and Cornwall, have been seriously disrupted. Rivers, including the Thames, have burst their banks. Some villages have been accessible only by boat.
Windows on both ground and first floor of a restaurant in a south coast small town were smashed by flying shingle, carried by waves of unprecedented force.
The army has been called in to help with prevention work, notably putting sandbags by buildings to prevent the water entering, and with rescue work.
The Prime Minister and other ministers have been visiting the worst affected areas. Prince William and Prince Harry, sons of Prince Charles, have joined teams of volunteers working to fill and move sandbags.
Inevitably many questions are being asked about whether sufficient precautions were in place, and whether they ought to have been in place in time to prevent much of the damage. Philip Hammond, the Secretary of State for Defence, said in a BBC interview that troops could have been deployed more quickly, and this of course encourages critics to blame government failures in responding to the floods.
It is always easy, and tempting, in any crisis, to blame the government for doing the wrong thing, or not doing enough of the right things. What is clear now is that the immediate priority must be to repair the damage that has been done, and help the thousands of people who have been affected.
Looking further ahead, there will obviously be a need to review precautionary measures, such as the dredging of rivers, and to ensure that bodies such as the Environment Agency have sufficient resources to carry out essential work. Given that before the floods occurred there had been an announcement by the government of plans to reduce the size of the Environment Agency, there will clearly be a need for some careful strategic thinking.
In that context, it will be important to ensure that such thinking does not descend into a blame game: “The previous government should have done more, the present government does not have its eye on the ball…” It is always easy for people, and not just politicians, to spend so much time and energy in allotting blame that none is left to take the decisions, and devise the policies, that are necessary.
It is in my opinion crucially important that those who have to make the decisions take a realistic view of climate change and its effects.
Last September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) drew attention to a changing pattern of extreme weather since 1950, connected with an increase of about 0.7C in the temperature of the earth. The IPCC believes, from all available scientific evidence, that most of this rise in temperature is attributable to human activities.
Climate change is a subject of great controversy in the political world — at least, in the U.K. political world — and it is always likely, therefore, that the politicians will find endless reasons to avoid taking any action based on it.
I am no scientist, but I am more inclined to find the views of the IPCC — the views of scientists about scientific issues — convincing than the views of politicians trying to avoid such controversial issues. In the aftermath of the dreadful storms that we have been enduring, I hope the politicians, on all sides of the debate, will take careful note of the scientists’ opinions, and will be prepared to take them seriously.