can we talk about the elephant in the room now?

What is the elephant in the room? It’s climate change. And like an elephant it’s not going to leave the room without destroying it in the process! We can ignore it if we wish, even deny its presence, but elephants are rather too large to forget about entirely and they rather tend to cramp our style, even if we live in a very big room. And they can make their presence felt if they want to, especially when they’re in a nasty mood! But when they start to poo, oh boy! How does climate change poo? Well, one of its  biggest poos is the flooding that occurs during extreme rainfall events and the tidal storm surges that often accompany such events. Climate scientists have ascertained that the biggest impacts of climate change for the UK will manifest through flooding, and the risks of flooding are rising remorselessly. We’ve just endured the wettest winter ever in southern England since UK weather records began, and only today Oxford University scientists have announced that their latest research shows there is now a 20% to 25% increased risk of extreme rainfall events in southern England as a result of the climate change that has happened so far, and that the risks will increase over the years if such climate change continues unabated.

I recently attended a workshop on flooding risks run by Friends of the Earth at its recent Greater South East Regional Gathering, and was fascinated by the unveiling of the interactive flood risk map that can be seen on the main Friends of the Earth website. This map reveals some fascinating information about just how big the flooding risk is in Eastbourne. Clicking on the Eastbourne constituency shows that 17,347 local homes are at risk from flooding according to the Environment Agency, which also rates one of the local flood defences as being below the standard necessary to be fully effective. Given that so many existing homes are at risk of flooding, you would think that it would only be sensible to avoid building any more new homes in flood risk areas. Yet, according to new plans just approved, up to 15o new homes will be built at Sovereign Harbour, an area that is at risk of flooding from the sea if the sea defences there ever fail. But South East England is sinking slowly downwards while the sea level is rising at a dramatically fast rate, meaning that significantly more money will need to be spent in coming years on not only maintaining existing flood defences but also improving them if all the new and existing homes at Sovereign Harbour and elsewhere in the Eastbourne area are to remain protected from flooding. Answer: spend more on flood defences. Simple, especially if, as David Cameron says, “money is no object”  and “we are a rich country” when it comes to dealing with actual flooding disasters!

But this is where the elephant in the room comes in again! As Friends of the Earth tirelessly points out, government spending on flood defences has declined significantly in recent years, and, according to the Committee on Climate Change, there is now a shortfall of £500 million in what should have been spent to keep the level of flood protection in line with the pace of  climate change. This is the elephant that won’t go away, yet is being ignored by our local and national politicians and media. You’ll very rarely see this issue discussed in depth locally and trying to raise awareness about it is very hard work indeed. I know because I’ve tried it! Just getting some mention of it in local newspapers is a near impossible task, especially now that recent flooding disasters are fading into memory and the fine sunny weather is back with us again, while the “money is no object” pledge has been quietly buried by the Treasury. But last winter our local sea defences, especially at Pevensey Bay were almost overtopped by some of the storm surges, and Eastbourne Borough Council officials were busily organising evacuation centres and emergency procedures in case of a disastrous breach. Thankfully, the sea defences held this time – just.

If we really want to tame the elephant in the room that is climate change (ie. mitigate it), we have to dramatically reduce carbon emissions by, amongst other things, switching as quickly as possible away from burning fossil fuels towards clean renewable energies such as wind and solar power. Similarly, we have to adapt to the elephant in the room (climate change won’t go away even if its worst scenarios are avoided!) by making the hard choices now about how best to protect our local communities from the ever increasing risks of flooding. If that means spending more money on maintaining and improving our local flood defences, then so be it. But that’s not happening. So we need to ask our local and national politicians the awkward questions: why are you not spending enough on flood protection? why are you still building new homes on flood plains? why are you so much more concerned with building new roads and airport runways despite the increase in carbon emissions that will bring, making climate change – and flooding risks – worse? Rest assured that we in Eastbourne Friends of the Earth will start asking those awkward questions and keep asking them on behalf of all those households at risk of flooding in our local area and beyond. After all, there’s an elephant in our room, and it’s beginning to get a bit smelly in here!


Update on 7.5.2014: I’ve just seen an article that says 95% of all new homes in the Eastbourne Borough Council’s jurisdiction between 2001 and 2011 were built on floodplains! But the council says that’s because 49% of those homes were built at Sovereign Harbour and that’s protected by sea defences. So that’s OK then! Er, except that the sea defences they’re talking about are ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’ sea defences. That is, Sovereign Harbour is essentially only protected by a shingle bank, which gets mostly washed away by winter storms and has to be rebuilt every year at great expense by dredging shingle from elsewhere and then dumping it back in front of Sovereign Harbour! This is hardly a sustainable solution in the long-term given that sea level will rise by at least a metre by 2100 because of climate change and that there is a natural limit to how high you can manageably build a shingle bank! Plus, there is always the danger that a major storm will hit Sovereign Harbour before the shingle bank can be adequately rebuilt. And there is always the issue of whether or not there will be enough money to keep rebuilding/improving the shingle bank in the long-term. I gather that the residents of Sovereign Harbour already have to pay a very stiff levy to help cover the cost of their sea defence works, and they are not happy about the quality of the shingle bank protecting them, as their latest newsletter shows! Indeed, the killer paragraph in the newsletter is: “It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude that a change in weather patterns requires a change in beach maintenance strategy; in particular that the constant erosion and replacement of shingle is just not sustainable”.

There are also concerns about other areas of Eastbourne where homes are being built within flood zones, and even the local MP, Stephen Lloyd, has expressed his concerns about one site in particular! For a map of the area of Eastbourne considered at most risk by The Environment Agency has a map of the area of Eastbourne most at risk of flooding. A fascinating study of how the Pevensey Bay shingle defences are managed shows the sheer scale of shingle recharge that is necessary – over 20,000 cubic metres of the shingle defences is washed away every year by the sea!


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