Learning by Drowning – Worcester flood defences

It’s not difficult to see our blighted little island as a “tiny speck” of land sitting rather vulnerably somewhere in the North Sea and within this speck more and more islands of communities cut off by floods for weeks and months. And in many of these communities there has been an unacceptable absence of resources or help in their time of crisis.

Worcester flood 2014 on bank of the river Severn with cathedral and the hive in the background.

Worcester and many areas of Worcestershire have been seriously affected by flooding yet again with economic, social and environmental consequences which have yet to be fully resolved and assessed.

Chris Huhne, the former Liberal Democrat MP and Energy and Climate Secretary, captured the nature of this national crises when he argued that:

“flood defence cuts driven by deficit reduction “are part of the problem; but more importantly he said” we cannot continue learning by drowning”. This short statement illuminates the “wicked un sustainable problem” we face with policies focused entirely on adaptation to climate change as opposed to trying to stop the problem. As he says: this focus on spending more on adaptation in Somerset or Worcester, for example-“is progress of sorts”.

But it fails to consider two gargantuan accelerators of climate change. First is that the extreme wet weather we are experiencing is occurring now when climatologists have shown that the planet has only warmed by 0.85 degrees C since 1880 and hence we have a further 1.15 degrees C to go before we reach the 2 degree danger level that science predicts could tip us into runaway climate chaos.

Worcestershire Highways clearing flood debris from Worcester Bridge

Second, the rise in rainfall intensity we are now experiencing and more so in the future will lead to a fourfold increase in physical damage to property and land. This increase does not include damage to future food supplies, degradation of soils, habitat loss and diminishing biodiversity and the cost of choliform bacterial infections caused by water contaminated by human sewage. Look out the window when it next rains and just try to imagine what Worcester might look like with a 2 or 6 degree rise in global warming. Scary isn’t it?

Professor Stephen Martin Honorary Professor University of Worcester; President Change Agents – UK; Fellow Society for the Environment and World Wide Fund for Nature.

  4 comments for “Learning by Drowning – Worcester flood defences

  1. March 6, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    We have just completed a survey of 1,000 students in the UK using DECC’s questions on cllimate change:

    70% of respondents feel concerned that climate change will affect them – with a quarter of these feeling very concerned

    Two thirds feel concerned about climate change in general – with one fifth feeling very concerned

    Two thirds believe the UK is already feeling the effects of climate change

    Just under two thirds say they would be likely to vote for the Government if they increased their action to tackle climate change

  2. Carolyn Roberts
    March 7, 2014 at 10:41 am

    I very much like the phrase ‘learning by drowning’. And how the concept of ‘wicked problems’ has now popped up above the horizon again. However, there are also now ‘superwicked’ problems, I gather from the literature! It’s most important that there is effective collaboration by all professional agencies, and a measured response to improving things, rather than a climate dominated by blame. I hope that Society for the Environment has a role to play in this.

  3. March 13, 2014 at 11:04 am

    The odds that we are all going to have to learn to live with dangerous climate change (and even greater intensity of weather) are clearly shortening. The important question is, perhaps, are we going to live in ways that help us learn from it? John Foster, in a new book from Earthscan / Routledge (After Sustainability: denial, hope, retrieval), explores these issues. In a Bath seminar last year, Foster described climate change as “this irruption of the ineliminably wild back into lives which had forgotten it.” A point that struck me with some force was John’s argument that sustainability is now a hegemonic future-focused discourse which occludes concern for the present, and that, because the present was the originally focus of environmentalism, we no longer have adequate language to focus on the natural world as it is now. This loss of a present-focus applies to environmental education (and ESD) as well, it seems to me.”

  4. Sian Evans
    March 13, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    Anyone interested in this topic should come along to the ISE seminar being held on Thursday 20th March 1.15 in room EE1026 at St John’s campus when Professor Tim Sparks from Coventry University will be presenting “Spring forwards, fall backwards: are our seasons changing?”
    Tim has co-authored more than 300 publications, particularly in phenology and climate impacts.

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