The phrase “I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life” has been uttered a great deal in the north of England this week. In some places an entire month’s rain fell in four hours. Small streams that are usually a few inches deep were transformed into raging torrents. Extensive flooding has swept away bridges, submerged roads and homes.
While in some places the clean up has begun, Whaley Bridge has been evacuated in response to the partial collapse of Toddbrook Reservoir which overlooks it. If it bursts it would dump over a million tons of water onto the Derbyshire town that is home to more than 6,000 people. The water would then continue its rampage through villages along the River Goyt.
For those living in the British Isles, changeable weather is nothing new. A single day can feature sun, cloud, rain, hail, then sun again. But the heatwaves of the past two months – July saw the highest temperature ever recorded in the UK – and these recent storms are showing us that there is a new normal.
For decades, scientists have been raising the alarm about global climate change. It’s important to acknowledge that there are very powerful forces that resist the required cuts in carbon emissions. Fossil fuel companies secretly funded think tanks that sowed doubt, and also supported politicians who worked to delay the policies that could have allowed humanity to stage a managed retreat from the burning of coal, oil, and gas. But we also need to accept that until people experienced climate change firsthand, mass action was always going to be hard to produce and maintain.
At a global scale, the climate is changing because more carbon dioxide increases the atmosphere’s greenhouse effect and so captures more of the energy that would otherwise have radiated out into space. We have increased global temperatures by a little over 1C since the Industrial Revolution. That sounds small. Seeing a smoothly increasing line on a graph doesn’t convey any urgency. Surely we can adapt to that?
The scene unfolding in Whaley Bridge shows us how involved, expensive and dangerous this process is going to be. For those evacuated, it literally brings climate change home. Clearly there are structural issues with the dam that need to be investigated. There may have been important warning signs missed. Perhaps corners were cut with maintenance.
But increasingly volatile weather means that there will be similar incidents across the UK in future years. If we are to learn the lessons of these, then we must go beyond the specifics. The risk is that we will focus on arguments that, for example, conclude the flooding was a consequence of the rivers not being dredged. Or the sea walls were too low because funds for increasing their height were axed. The trains were delayed because of buckling tracks that were not modified for high temperatures.
Attempting to continually adapt to climate change means attempting to adapt to a moving target. Our only hope is to both adapt to the climate change already locked in, and urgently slow down our burning of fossil fuels so we reduce our impacts on the climate. An appropriate analogy that I painfully learnt during a gym session is that you cannot keep up with an ever increasing treadmill. You either slow it down, or eventually stumble, land flat on your face, and get unceremoniously thrown off it.
The sight of RAF helicopters dumping hundreds of tons of aggregate onto a failing reservoir dam is something most people have never before witnessed. Evacuating an entire town will be an event that will be remembered for the rest of the lives for those involved.
We must understand that until global emissions of carbon dioxide are effectively zero, then what we currently consider to be dangerous, once-in-a-lifetime events, will be dwarfed by the extreme episodes that will impact our children and future generations.
is a senior lecturer in global systems at Exeter University