Moving from tactics to strategy: extreme weather, climate risks and the policy response

 By Dr Flora MacTavish and Dr Simon Buckle

In the press coverage of the recent floods, there has been a lot of discussion about whether the authorities could have been better prepared or responded more effectively. The National Farmers Union has called for the reintroduction of river dredging, although experts argue that dredging may be limited in its effectiveness. Local authorities have been criticised by experts for distributing sand bags rather than encouraging the use of more effective alternatives such as wooden or metal boards.

These are essentially tactical issues, however. It is the government and local authorities that have the vital strategic responsibility for fully embedding weather and climate risks into decisions on the level and focus of investment into flood defences and planning regulations about what can be built and where.

The persistence of the weather pattern that has caused this winter’s exceptional rainfall and floods has been very unusual.  However, as the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the UK Climate Change Committee noted in their 2011 report, heat waves, droughts and floods are all expected to get worse as a result of climate change. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment of the science (AR5) concluded that average precipitation was very likely to increase in the high and some of the mid latitudes, with a likely increase in the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events over land (see our note on The Changing Water Cycle).  If we are to improve our resilience, we need to get the strategic policy framework and incentives right.

Unfortunately, for flood risk, this doesn’t seem to be happening yet, despite the Pitt Review after the 2007 floods. In 2011, the Climate Change Committee noted a decline in urban green space in each of six of local authority areas studied, and an increase in hard surfacing in five of the six. The Committee’s 2012 report showed that the UK has become more exposed to future flood risk. It judged that four times as many households and businesses in England could be at risk of flooding in the next twenty years if further steps are not taken to prepare for climate change.

In particular it noted that:

  • Development within the floodplain in England has grown at a faster rate (12%) than development outside it (7%) over the past ten years;
  • One in five properties built in the floodplain have been in areas of significant flood risk:
  • Levels of investment in flood defences and uptake rates of protection measures for individual properties will not keep pace with the increasing risks of flooding due to climate change.

The Committee has acknowledged that the economic and social benefits of new developments may not always be outweighed by the risks of building on flood plains.  Decision makers should weigh up the trade-offs between long term risks such as climate change and other shorter term priorities, but the Committee judged that this was not happening “widely or consistently” at the time they wrote their 2011 report.

The government is in the process of trying to implement the Flood Re scheme to address concerns over the affordability and availability of flood insurance, but as our colleagues at the Grantham Research Institute at LSE have noted in their response to the government consultation,

“The design of the Flood Re scheme, which is expected to last until at least 2035, has not taken into account adequately, if at all, how flood risk is being affected by climate change. For this reason, it is likely to be put under increasing pressure and may prove to be unsustainable because the number of properties in future that will be at moderate and high probability of flooding has been significantly underestimated. “

Whether or not these particular floods are due to climate change, this is the sort of thing we expect to see more of in the future. When the immediate crisis is over, the government needs to think hard about its strategic response, which must include mitigation action as well as measures to develop greater resilience to weather and climate related risks.

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