“Unprecedented yes, unpredictable no”: Friends of the Earth’s Guy Shrubsole on floods, austerity and climate change

As London prepares for particularly intense climate change, councils elsewhere no longer even have to produce adaptation plans. As Friends of the Earth’s leading floods campaigner Guy Shrubsole puts it, we seem to be “gold-plating our defences here and allowing the rest of the country to effectively just go swim.” And that’s only the beginning. Guy recently wrote for openDemocracy on what’s gone wrong with government policy on flood defences, and what needs to change. On Wednesday, I joined him in FoE’s offices to hear more.


I’m here in the offices of Friends of the Earth, talking to Guy Shrubsole, who is a campaigner for Friends of the Earth?

Yep, that’s right – hello.

Hi. So you just wrote a piece on openDemocracy about flooding and the policy context of that. Can you tell us a bit about what you wrote?

Yes, certainly. So obviously we’ve just been experiencing a lot of floods in the UK, another extremely wet winter. In fact, the Met Office has just recently reported that the December of 2015 was the wettest month we’ve ever had on record in the UK. This is obviously starting to follow a pattern, really. We’re starting to see climate change kick in in the UK, in our view – and what my piece for openDemocracy was about was really trying to set out what we think the Government’s flood resilience review should cover. David Cameron and his Environment Secretary Liz Truss announced that they’re going to do a review of the UK’s preparedness for flooding in future in response to this year’s devastating floods, and so we were trying to set out what we think it should contain.

We personally think that it should do a lot more to address climate change, and to reassess the risks of climate change to the UK; we think it should be doing a lot more, that governments should be doing a lot more to change land management patterns in the UK – some of the stuff that George Monbiot’s been writing about recently around rewilding upland catchments to ensure that they can stop water coming off them so quickly; we think there needs to be a lot more funding made available, investment made in all forms of flood defence, both hard flood defences and the sort of natural flood defences that Monbiot and others are talking about; and also there needs to be a review, really, of the governance structures around managing flood risk in the UK. So we hope they’ll do something. We’re meeting ministers and talking to them about it quite soon – and obviously the question is: are they actually going to change their ways? This sort of thing has been promised before. Two years ago, in fact, the Government promised a review of flooding, and nothing seemed to materialise. So we hope this time it’ll be different.

There was something published just recently in the Sunday Times, I think, that was about a review that was actually cancelled.

Yeah, that’s right. It’s sort of funny – it’s a bit like Groundhog Day really, things seem to just constantly repeat themselves with floods. There’s a period of, you know, obviously everybody, politicians throwing up their hands in horror, or possibly sort of mock-horror perhaps, about the impact of floods, wading into them, going out with photoshoots in wellies, and then announcing a review of everything that’s gone wrong and what we need to learn for next time. And then, lo and behold, the review either having some impact, or perhaps sitting on a shelf for far too long and gathering dust.

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Are they actually going to change their ways? This sort of thing has been promised before. Two years ago, in fact, the Government promised a review of flooding, and nothing seemed to materialise.

And yeah, two years ago Oliver Letwin was asked by David Cameron to chair a Cabinet Committee on flooding. Jonathan Leake in the Sunday Times revealed recently that actually that Cabinet Committee had only met three times and never produced a report. So two years on, what’s changed? Unfortunately not enough and not a vast amount really. So hopefully this time it’ll be different.

Do you think in the context of the austerity programme, there are going to be some big barriers to the Government investing more in flood defences, say?

Yeah, I mean this is really one of the things that we think happened under the coalition, was that the coalition government in 2010 inherited a rising budget for flood defences from the last Labour government. They in fact presided over a record year of investment in flood defences in 2010-2011, but subsequently, following Osborne’s first Spending Review, cut the floods budget quite significantly. And there’s been other stuff recently put out there by Simon Wren-Lewis at the University of Oxford, talking about how there’s this sort of missing billion pounds’ worth of investment over the last five years – that had the previous trajectory of flood defence spending been kept to, there would have been greater investment and we might be in a better place now.

Now the Government did announce, to give them their due, they did announce in the spending review of 2014 an increase in flood defence spending over the next five to six years. But people have been asking, well, what have been the impact of the cuts to date – looking at the specific schemes, for example, that were cancelled or delayed in the centre of Leeds, which has subsequently been flooded – and really asking, well, was this a wise choice made by George Osborne at the time, were these cuts not really a false economy?

So there’s part of your article where you talk about London, and you find that the preparations for climate change in London are actually kind of discrepant to those that are being prepared around the rest of the country. Can you talk about that a bit?

Yeah, sure. So obviously London is the capital, it’s got millions of people living here, there’s a lot of property that needs to be protected and it’s right that we are doing all that we can to protect the city. And it’s actually not that long ago that London was very prone to flooding – you only have to go back to earlier in the twentieth century when even the Houses of Parliament were flooding still in 1928, when there was a big tide coming from a storm surge in the North Sea.

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If it’s good enough for London, why isn’t it good enough for the rest of the country? Why are we seeming to gold-plate our defences here and allow the rest of the country to just go swim?

After the Thames Barrier was put in place in the eighties, that sort of flood risk has receded, thankfully. But now the government is looking at this thing called the Thames 2100 project, which they’re doing with the Environment Agency to prepare London for future flooding and climate change. And what they’ve done here, it’s quite interesting: they’re preparing London for a particularly high climate change scenario in which sea levels rise by two metres. And actually, most other parts of the country, in fact, according to the Town and Country Planning Association, every other part of the country is adapting to a lower level of climate change, maybe looking at, talking about sea-level rise of simply one metre by the end of the century. So why is this happening? If it’s good enough for London, why isn’t it good enough for the rest of the country? Why are we really seeming to gold-plate our defences here and allow the rest of the country to effectively just go swim? And we’d obviously like to see the government live up to its aspirations of being a one-nation government by applying that to flood defences really, and climate change preparation, and apply those same standards everywhere.

Another interesting dynamic in the debate on floods has been the government actually seeming to fall back on climate change as a sort of excuse for some of its other policy problems. So particularly high levels of rainfall, for instance, are a kind of get-out for its failure to invest in flood defences and so on.

Yeah, and there seem to be times during the floods when every time a minister popped up, they’d say “oh, it’s unprecedented rainfall, unprecedented, just horrible, horrible” – and that seemed to at some stage become a kind of excuse for saying we couldn’t possibly have prepared for this. But unprecedented yes, unpredictable no – there have clearly been warnings from scientists for decades that actually climate change is very likely to push up rainfall and intense rainfall, and that is manifesting itself in worse and worse floods, really. And so I think, yeah – it’s on the one hand very welcome that the government is now seeming to much more whole-heartedly acknowledge that climate change is having an impact right here, right now in the UK, in contrast to, say, two years ago when you had Owen Patterson at the helm at the Department of the Environment still wondering if climate change is even happening or even a thing. But yeah, this can’t be used as an excuse for not preparing and not investing enough really, and we just need to get our act together as a country.

I guess adaptation to climate change is one side of the coin, and the other, perhaps greater side of this slightly lopsided coin is mitigation.

Absolutely.

And I guess a lot of people were contrasting the Government’s commitments in Paris to its level of action at home. What do you think about that?

Yeah, well absolutely and I mean obviously prevention in most things is usually better than cure, so let’s be doing far more to stop climate change from getting worse, stop flooding from getting worse by cutting emissions rather than just having to kind of every time scramble to respond to worse and worse extreme weather disasters.

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Unprecedented yes, unpredictable no – there have clearly been warnings from scientists for decades that climate change is very likely to push up intense rainfall, and that is manifesting itself in worse and worse floods.

It’s interesting, actually, that what’s come out of Paris is on the one hand some good promises, and there’s a sense of momentum, that governments are wanting to move – rhetorically at least – in the direction of acting on climate change; and yet the pledges that have come out of Paris still put us on a pathway for three degrees of global warming, which obviously – what was being aspired to in Paris is to in fact maybe even lower to 1.5 degrees of global warming. So if we’re accepting internationally now that 1.5 is the safe limit and yet we’re on course for three, I think it’s time governments fessed up really to their publics and said, well, this is what we’re actually in store for. This is what it’s going to mean for you and your home and your community in terms of flooding, drought, future climate impacts. The fact that we’re seeing these sorts of impacts even after less than one degree of global warming I think should give pause for thought and indeed some cause for alarm, actually, in Whitehall, and it really needs now to get its act together in terms of preparing the UK for the worst, but actually planning for the best in terms of cutting emissions, so that we actually do stop climate change getting any worse.

Just talking about Paris for a moment, there were some interestingly contrasting reactions amongst environmentalists to the final deal that was hammered out. It seemed that a lot of people actually at the negotiations were overjoyed with the outcome – with some reservations and so on – whereas there were other groups and environmentalists who said that actually it was a kind of a betrayal and a cop-out. What do you make of that stuff?

Well I think there’s a sort of – George Monbiot had quite a good line on this which was around: it was better than it could have been, but compared to the reality of what we need it clearly falls far short. And I think there were a lot of people trying to downplay expectations beforehand by saying – Christiana Figueres was saying, well, this is clearly not going to deliver two degrees. Well, that is quite important really. It is in fact fundamental.

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The mention of 1.5 degrees as a target in the Paris agreement means there is no excuse for rich nations thinking they can get away with just continuing with business as usual.

So yes, I think obviously we welcome anything where there is some degree of progress, and there is a sense of goodwill and a desire to work together perhaps now, a better sense. And the fact that there is at least the mention of 1.5 degrees as a target in the Paris agreement really does mean that now there is no excuse for rich nations to continue thinking that they can get away with just continuing with business as usual, they must and the UK must revise its plans, it needs to revise its plans so that it has much, much, much tougher emissions cuts. That’s something we’ll definitely be campaigning for and holding the UK to account now that they’ve signed up to the Paris agreement. But as I say, the pledge has set us on course for dangerous levels of warming still. So basically as before Paris, the world is not saved, the climate movement continues to have to fight, so we need to continue putting a lot of pressure on them over everything from fracking to renewables – cuts to renewables.

Yeah, there certainly seem like some big battles ahead with the British government. As you mention, fracking, a lot of fracking planned across the country, its commitment against onshore wind and this continuing commitment to trying to maximise recovery of fossil fuels. This seems like worlds away from the kind of green grandstanding that you see at climate summits and so on.

Well, I think that’s absolutely right, and I think it’s really – yeah, there’s a striking contrast between the sort of rhetoric that the Prime Minister was coming out with at the start of the Paris talks saying, you know, there are no more excuses for hindering action. Absolutely right, you know, there are no more excuses, so why is it that … there’s a major excuse for David Cameron, perhaps, which is the person sitting next to him in Number Eleven Downing Street, who seems to constantly be finding excuses for vexing action on global warming, really.

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That we’re seeing these sorts of impacts even after less than one degree of global warming should give pause for thought, and some cause for alarm, actually, in Whitehall.

So yes, what is there on the cards in 2016? Well the battle against fracking is ratcheting up an even further gear. There’s two major developments coming on in early February, potentially even on the same day. One is the decision on whether to frack in Ryedale in Yorkshire; another is Cuadrilla, the fracking company who were rejected, their sites were rejected in Lancashire famously last year, and they’ve appealed those decisions and they’re coming to a head in an appeals process in February as well. There is also, despite the government’s announced coal phase-out, there are still opencast coal mines being dug in the UK and there are two more of those, particularly large ones being decided on this year – some ten million tonnes of coal that are hanging in the balance here. There’s all sorts of stuff coming up around what’s going to happen to renewables, what’s going to happen to the Hinkley Point nuclear plant, that’s being challenged by the Austrian government in the European courts – so yes, lots of battles ahead.

Something you’ve worked on in the past is about the emissions that go into our consumption – so these are the global warming emissions that are basically part of the things we buy, from our imports, and so are sort of effectively placed off the books of our national carbon accounts. Could you tell me a bit about that?

Yeah, sure. I mean yeah, a few years ago I was looking into this and realised that – as others, academics and campaigners as well realised – that actually for a period whilst our domestic territorial emissions in the UK were seeming to go down, actually our overall footprint was still getting worse: overall emissions were still rising.

There’s been some good news on this front, I think, over the last couple of years actually, because a lot of our imports come from China and India, and actually those parts of the world are reducing emissions now – they’re starting to reduce their emissions intensity, at least. So you know, although we still hear about lots of coal plants being built in China every year, they’re also installing a huge amount of renewable energy, they are obviously taking on fresh commitments before the Paris agreement, and my understanding is that the academics who’ve been looking into the UK’s consumption emissions, our outsourced emissions, that even on those grounds now, that footprint is starting to reduce. It’s clearly not doing enough, not coming down quick enough, and it’s clear that we’ve obviously still managed to outsource some of the problem and aren’t taking responsibility for it. But I suppose I’m more hopeful now that we may have turned a corner on some of those, on the issue actually, maybe not getting worse still. But still a growing concern – still a concern, obviously.

I guess the issue of consumption and rising consumption starts to tie into another, you could call it a sort of hot potato among environmentalists, which is the issue of whether sustainability is compatible with economic growth. This is something you’ve written about a bit in the past. What is your thinking on this? Because there are some scientists like Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre who are quite adamant that we have to curtail economic growth for moral reasons to deal with climate change in the near-term. What do you think of that debate?

I think that fundamentally GDP growth has never been a good measure of what makes a good economy. So certainly, growth isn’t necessarily desirable, certainly where it just simply means increased material throughput and increased pollution, clearly that is not the right measure, and shouldn’t be the pole star for the economy around which we orientate ourselves.

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Why do we continue to landfill so much stuff? Why do we continue to have inbuilt obsolescence in our products? Why do we continue to have so much advertising that is leading to all sorts of social problems?

As you mentioned, I’ve tried to write and look into this before and perhaps it might be easier just to, if I could just send you that blog you could look into it there! But it does feel like it’s a quite complex issue, and I guess it feels like I’m still not sure whether either side of this debate has necessarily won out. I mean, if we’re talking about reducing emissions whilst continuing to grow the economy, well there’s precious – there’s not that much evidence in the past that we’ve been able to do that; but then, neither is there much evidence that we’ve been able to convince enough people to create a steady-state economy either. So basically, in both sets of arguments we’re looking to create things that are unprecedented – which suggests to me that we should just keep on trying. And I’m not sure that I’m that keen on backing one over the other whilst actually both sides can learn a lot from each other.

So on the one hand, you need to innovate and certainly need to grow the green sectors of the economy – so you need to have an expansion of offshore wind, for example, and you need to have an expansion of electric cars, for example. That clearly does involve growth, probably even in the usual sense: it requires different metals to be used, or you know, rare earth elements to be used instead of coal, for example. At the same time, there’s clearly enormous amounts of very wasteful consumption that just, why do we continue to have it? Why do we continue to landfill so much stuff? Why do we continue to have inbuilt obsolescence in our products? Why do we continue to have so much advertising that is leading to all sorts of social problems, and so on? So yeah, I think both sides of that debate can learn a lot from each other. I have hope, I suppose, that we are starting to turn a corner and that things are – whether that’s because of social change or technological change or a combination of both – that actually we’re starting to see change even now. So signs such as the IEA suggesting that emissions have started to slow down on a global level are obviously very encouraging. Certainly not something to rest on our laurels about, though.

Guy Shrubsole, thank you very much.

[Laughs.] Thanks, Tim.

@timbird84

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