Thank God for climate change. If it wasn’t for that get-out clause the Environment Agency might actually be held accountable for defending homes and businesses against flood risk, and for giving accurate warnings about imminent flooding.
In an extraordinary interview on the Today programme yesterday the agency’s Executive Director of Operations, Toby Willison, was invited to respond to the account of a business-owner in the South Yorkshire village of Fishlake, which was flooded last Friday.
At 5pm, she said, the Environment Agency had assured villagers that their homes would not flood; less than four hours later the River Don has burst its banks and their homes were inundated, ending up under three foot of water.
Mr Willison said he didn’t even know what advice had been given to residents. But rather than hold him to this detail, interviewer Nick Robinson then invited him to prophesise doom about climate change – and invitation he took up with relish.
“All the projections are that we are going to see more of these intense rainfall events.” He said. In other words, don’t blame us, blame climate change. Listen to Greta – we’re all going to drown and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.
Are intense rainfall events becoming more common? It depends how you measure them. The Environmental Agency claims that of the 17 wettest months or seasons since 1910, nine have occurred since 2000. But on the other hand, many records for intense rainfall are still held by events decades ago.
The wettest 24 hours measured in the UK was in Martinstown, Dorset, in 1955 , when 279 mm (11 inches) fell – making last Friday look a mere shower by comparison. The highest rainfall measured in an hour was set in Maidenhead in 1901, when 92 mm (3.6 inches) fell.
By contrast, that is exactly the same quantity of rain measured at Emley Moor, high on the Pennines, in an area which drains into the River Don, over the whole course of this month so far.
Without getting too involved in the debate as to whether climate change is causing more intense rainfall, two things are clear: firstly, that prolonged, heavy rain has always been part of our climate and secondly, that this month’s rain, while heavy, has not come close to breaking any records.
For the Environment Agency to seemingly try to hide behind climate change for its failure to protect property and, in some cases, even warn people about the risk of flooding is outrageous.