Time for Noah’s Ark again?
Michael Roberts looks at the impact of climate change across the world
The world is experiencing extreme weather. In the US, California’s drought is the worst in 100-years while the East Coast faced a massive snowstorm with freezing temperatures. On the other side of the world, Australia continues to deal with intense summer heat and droughts, causing major bush fires. There has been severe winter flooding in the UK and Europe; extreme cold and snow in the Eastern US and Japan and so on.
Now this may just be random, outliers in the normal distribution of weather conditions, or it could be that the globe is reaching a peak in a cycle of weather, or it could be the ever-growing impact of climate change as the world heats up. In fact, it could be all three, as the first two possible causes can be considered as immediate or cyclical and the last (climate change) as structural or ‘ultimate’. The facts speak. Since 1997, the world has experienced the 13 warmest years ever recorded out of 15, according to the UN. June 2012 marked the 328th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. In 2013, extreme weather events included several all-time temperature records. Snow cover in Europe and North America was above average, while the Arctic ice was 4,5% below the 1981–2010 average.
Northern Hemisphere weather extremes have been linked to the Arctic sea ice melting. In January alone, 11233 weather-related deaths were reported in India. Bangladesh faced the lowest temperature since country’s independence. In Europe, last summer’s weather was bizarre. Finland and most of Northern Countries got the highest temperatures in Europe during May and June, while Western- and Middle Europe faced much cooler weather and even their wettest May and June ever. Overall, prolonged heat waves in the Northern Hemisphere set new record high temperatures.
There’s little doubt that climate change is contributing to the extreme weather disasters we’ve been experiencing.
Numerous studies, such as the US NOAA’s 2011 State of the Climate report, shows the clear links between extreme weather and human-induced climate change. In the UK, the media is bouncing about the extreme levels of rain and wind hitting the island and causing significant and prolonged flooding. The UK Met Office, the body that forecasts the weather, announced that climate change was likely to be a factor in the extreme weather that has hit much of the UK in recent months: “all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change” and “there is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.” The UK Met office said there had been the “most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years”.
Climate models are forecasting increased episodes of flooding for the UK under climate change conditions. According to the UK Met Office, four of the wettest five years have occurred since 2000, a statistic made all the more remarkable given the drought between 2010 and 2012. Peer-reviewed scientific research, performed by academics in collaboration with RMS scientists, found that climate change increased the likelihood of the floods that impacted England and Wales in the year 2000 in which 10,000 homes and businesses were flooded due to heavy autumn precipitation. And Britain’s Rowntree Foundation study, found that this was a direct result of the physical principle that a warmer atmosphere holds higher amounts of water vapour and UK regional climate models predict increased winter rainfall (especially in the north and west) and more intense, highly localised summer rainfall (especially in the south and east). These predictions also accord with recent changes in rainfall over the period 1961–2006 which have seen many parts of the UK affected by severe and highly damaging floods. The study concluded “Whilst no single flood can unequivocally be attributed to climate change, there is evidence that the probability of floods (in this instance, the regional floods affecting England and Wales in 2000) is increasing as a result of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.”
But while the British press gushes about the sorry state of a few thousands people in the richer and leafier parts of England like Somerset or Surrey, the most damage from extreme rainfall, flooding and wind is likely to be in the poorer urban areas. As the Met Office put it: “there is now little doubt that a warmer and wetter UK will experience more floods with greater impacts in urban areas.” In particular, there is the increased risk of pluvial flooding. River banks overflowing is called fluvial flooding; pluvial flooding is when combined systems (storm water and foul water sewers) are overwhelmed, the foul water sewers surcharge onto the streets. The resulting flood is a mixture of surface water and untreated sewage which produces a more severe health hazard.
Pluvial flood risk accounts for approximately one-third of flood risk from all sources in the UK. Approximately 2 million people in UK urban areas (settlements with a population over 10,000) are exposed to an annual pluvial flood risk of 0.5 per cent or greater (‘1 in 200-year’ event). An additional 1.2 million people in urban areas could be put at risk by 2050 from a combination of climate change (300,000) and population growth (900,000). Settlements across the UK with higher rainfall also tend to have greater levels of social deprivation.
As one blogger put it: “The Environment Agency has taken its fair share of blame for the flooding misery in Somerset , but there is an industry which has escaped criticism. And unlike the quango, it’s not short of a billion or two. Step forward the privatised water industry which has a key role in dealing with our storm and sewage water. In the last six years water companies have made £11 billion in profits from our water bills, surely enough to have stopped its customers from having raw sewage flooding into their homes and down their streets every time there is a heavy downpour. Dispatches has been investigating the role of the water companies in the country’s recent flood problems and while Somerset have been dealing with record rainfalls and storm surges many homes across the country have been dealing with another consequence of the deluge: sewage flooding into their homes and down their streets. When it rains heavily, our underground infrastructure can become overwhelmed and raw sewage can get discharged onto our streets , rivers and to a growing number of unfortunate people into their homes. According to the Consumer Council for Water, complaints from homeowners about sewer flooding are up by 50% compared to last year.”
The private sector and the private water management monopolies that are supposed to provide decent water and sewage facilities are not not up to the task. Profit for shareholders comes before service to the public. As a result, basic infrastructure investment in sewage and water, roads, rail etc is inadequate – and yet the world, including the richer capitalist countries, is facing increased risk of ‘natural disasters’ as the global climate changes and, with it, the weather conditions.
Every year there is a major disaster in the emerging economies, with thousands dying and hundreds of thousands losing their homes and livelihoods. But the media only remembers the events that hit the rich economies. The most infamous was the Katrina hurricane, the bursting of the levees and the flooding of the homes of the poor in New Orleans. Not only did the federal and local governments fail to act quickly and efficiently, we now know that warnings of such a calamity had been voiced years before. But instead of spending more to upgrade the levees, federal and state governments actually cut back on such infrastructure funding. After all, such spending was of no value to rich living up on their hilltop homes.
It’s the same story in the current flooding crisis in the UK. In November 2012, the government announced plans to spend £120 million (US$183 million) on flood defences, split between new areas targeted for protection and speeding up protection already being built. But this came after a period of budget cutting, with government climate advisers in the summer of 2012 noting a 12% decrease in flood defence spending from the previous year. Construction began on 93 new flood defences in February 2013 with a government pledge of an additional £2.3 billion (US$3.5 billion) until 2015.
Despite this activity, some of the largest projects, like the £80 million (US$122 million) coastal defence at Rossall, Lancashire, are to protect from storm surge rather than the pluvial flooding that dominated 2012’s losses. According to the RMS UK Inland Flood Model, an annual flood loss of £1.2 billion (US$1.8 billion) can be expected approximately once every decade. The RMS model also estimates that only 50% of the average annual loss (AAL) comes from major river flooding, with the other half from small river and stream flooding, flash flooding, pluvial flooding, and localized heavy precipitation.
Even the classical economist of capitalism and the so-called guru of free markets, Adam Smith recognised the need for public spending in infrastructure because the private sector could not do it. In his Wealth of Nations. Smith explained: “The first and last duty of the sovereign is that of erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works, which though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society are, however, of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual.” And Smith meant by this “good roads, navigable canals, harbours and education”.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has continually complained that America’s infrastructure is rotting away. It found that one in five American bridges were “structurally deficient”. While the number of miles travelled by cars and trucks had doubled in the past 25 years, highway lane miles had risen only 45%. Demand for electricity had increased by 25%, but the construction of new transmission facilities had fallen by 30%. This deterioration had lost 870,000 jobs that could have been secured with new projects, while the costs of moving goods had risen significantly. The ASCE reckoned that there was $100bn of potential work available. Instead the US Congress plans to cut such spending by 35% over the next six years.
More extreme weather is on its way and the risk of calamity involving millions is rising sharply. To avoid this, we can rely only on uninterested private monopolies and governments engaged in cutting back on so-called ‘discretionary’ public spending. It’s another consequence of the dominance of the capitalist mode of production. There is a UN summit in New York on climate change and the weather in September. We may have to rebuild Noah’s Ark before then.