When the floods recede, commitment to act on climate change must surge

If we are to find a positive from these devastating floods, it must be a renewal in our efforts to contain the worst of climate change.

Reg Platt is senior research fellow at IPPR

The recent flooding experienced in the UK has been truly horrific. We must hope that there is respite from the devastation soon and those affected can get on with rebuilding their lives.

If there is to be a silver lining it will be that the events strengthen our commitment to tackling harmful carbon pollution.

No one weather event can be ascribed firmly to climate change but the scientific evidence is resolutely clear that climate change increases the probability of extreme weather events. And when you survey weather events not just in the UK but across the world, it is clear that the impacts of climate change are already being felt, with devastating consequences.

Lord Stern, the UK cross-bench peer who authored in 2006 the most important evidence review on climate change the world over, has today in an article eloquently explained the links between climate change, the recent UK floods and other extreme weather events across the globe. The Met office has also linked the recent floods to climate change.

The worrying thing is that the climatic impacts we are already experiencing are the result of a temperature increase of 0.7 degrees C since pre-industrial times.

And yet, because there is a lag between when carbon pollution is released and when it impacts on temperatures, we are already committed as a planet to warming substantially in excess of this. To use an apt metaphor, the impacts we are currently seeing are just the tip of the iceberg to what we will experience in years to come.

In fact, if we do not act quickly to stem carbon pollution then the damaging climatic impacts to which we are committed will become far greater.

It was stated in the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is an on-going global scientific collaboration on climate change that works on behalf of the UN negotiation process, that at current rates of carbon pollution we have between 15 and 25 years until the planet will be committed to temperature increases of 2 degrees C.

This is the internationally agreed ‘dangerous’ level of temperature increase. At this level not only will the climatic impacts be severe, the chance of ‘positive feedbacks’ leading to rapid acceleration in temperatures up to 4 and 5 degrees increases dramatically.

It is hard to see as meaningful the notion that we can simply ‘adapt’ to the scale of impacts unleashed at these temperatures.

And yet, despite the resounding clarity of the scientific evidence there are some that seek to undermine the scientific basis of climate change and promote inaction from government. Worryingly these arguments have found substantial purchase in a large portion of the right wing press and are even ascribed to by some front bench politicians in the Conservative party.

There are several reasons why these influential people have found themselves ascribing to these views. Some are simply contrarians who enjoy the profile that comes from a discordant view.

Others are ideologically opposed to having the state intervene in markets, which must occur in some fashion or other, since climate change results from the failure of markets to price in the impacts caused by carbon pollution.

And finally there are those with a much more cynical agenda, whose economic value is tied up in the existing high carbon polluting world.

It should not surprise anyone to know that fossil fuel interests bank roll much climate change denying activity. And the big energy companies in the UK have recently demonstrated how they will put their own self-interest before efforts to tackle climate change.

As the influence of climate change detractors has grown in recent years, it has become clear that while we have the technology and the capital to tackle this problem, we are failing to win the politics.

That’s why the most important outcome from the recent floods could be renewed collective pressure by the public to ensure we take the action that is required to tackle climate change. The government should be held to account to ensure the UK’s legal climate change obligations are fulfilled.

The consequences and risks of inaction on climate change are simply too severe to be left to somebody else. Tackling climate change is going to be incredibly difficult. But in difficult circumstances the right response is to tackle challenges head-on, not simply ignore or hide from them.

Impacts from climate change are already happening, with devastating results. The future of people the world over depends on the actions we choose to take now.

If we are to find a positive from these devastating floods, it must be a renewal in our efforts to contain the worst of climate change.

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