John Craven: Is climate change to blame for the recent bad weather?

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What’s going wrong with our weather? That’s the question on the nation’s lips as our traditionally temperate climate sways from drought to flood and seasons lurch all over the place. Who could have believed that last spring’s hosepipe bans would be followed by the wettest summer on record, and that by the end of autumn, the cost of flood destruction would have topped £1bn?

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Unless it is ruining your home or business and turning roads into rivers, floodwater can be quite beautiful. After a heavy downpour, the field at the bottom of my garden transforms briefly into a lake. Ducks appear and wintry sunlight makes it shine like silver. Fortunately, unlike so much land on floodplains, houses have not been built on it.

Of course, mighty drenchings in the UK are nothing new; for example in just one night in 1912, 20cm (8in) of rain fell on eastern England. But in the old days, with a much smaller population, most houses were sensibly constructed on high ground. Now, with so many more homes needed and suitable land in short supply, numerous floodplains have turned into building sites.

Falling budget

To the despair of many people living in the danger zones, the Coalition Government actually cut the budget for flood defences – but then did a U-turn after last November’s disastrous downpour and upped it by £120m. But Labour says 249 schemes have been postponed or cancelled and this year will see less expenditure than in 2008.

July will see the end of the agreement that obliges insurance companies to provide flood cover. At the time of writing, insurers and the Government are at loggerheads over renewing it: if they fail, the consequences could be calamitous for 200,000 households at risk on and around floodplains.

In the Climate Change Risk Assessment, compiled by Defra, flooding comes top of the list of challenges facing our economy, society and natural environment in the future. “Not long ago, the UK was being warned to prepare for a Mediterranean climate,” says BBC weather forecaster Peter Gibbs, “but now that’s not looking quite so likely. Instead, we may be heading for a future of more erratic weather with greater extremes of heat, cold, drought and flood.

“Some experts think last year’s drought followed by months of heavy rain was due to the jet stream being affected by the loss of Arctic sea ice. Instead of following a fast, direct route, it meandered weakly and, quite simply, the weather got ‘stuck’ for long periods, rather than changing from day to day, which we are more used to in this county.”

Peter adds: “Gardeners and farmers are likely to have to rethink practices that have worked well up to now in the benign
British climate, but which may not cope with the large swings in temperature and rainfall we expect to see.”

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With serious flooding predicted to increase, especially in the second part of this century, vital decisions will need to be made on how much the nation is prepared to spend to hold back the water. Unless the threat is properly addressed, the annual bill for flood damage by 2080 could be 12 times higher than it was last year. Quite some inheritance for us to leave.