Last week, when I stood in front of the TV cameras to launch the Green Party’s election campaign, I called this the "climate election". I didn’t expect to have my point proven so quickly and so tragically, with the evacuation of more than 1,000 homes across the north of England owing to extreme weather this weekend, with a further 50 flood warnings issued by the Environment Agency for the days ahead.
Climate breakdown makes this sort of extreme weather more likely, with the Met Office confirming that Britain is getting wetter. This is exactly what climate chaos looks like – not in some far off future, but right here, right now, in the UK. Only a Green New Deal, which decarbonises the economy by 2030 and restores our natural world, gives us a chance of staying on dry ground.
Floods like those in Yorkshire and Derbyshire now are becoming a fixture of the British winter. You know Christmas is on the way when you see front bench politicians travel the nations motorways to visit a flooded village, stand solemnly in a new pair of wellies and pretend to listen to local people. Yet time and again, after the cameras are gone, no action is taken.
In 2015, after the wettest month on record, David Cameron said that money was "no object" in tackling flooding. Then he slashed flood defence budgets by 14 per cent, while choking local authorities with cuts of up to 40 per cent. To take action on climate chaos like this, we need a truly ambitious programme of action, rather than the Tories’ weak target of going net zero by 2050. That's like calling 999 and asking for an ambulance in 30 years’ time.
However, climate is only half of the story. Yes, it’s climate change which is driving rainfall at unprecedented rates, but it’s also the degradation of our natural world which fuels flooding, ensuring that this rainfall can’t be absorbed by the environment and leaving it nowhere to go except our living rooms.
The natural instinct of the main political parties is to deal with this problem by pouring concrete and building barriers right by the riverbanks. This is, at best, a short-term solution; once the floodwater is creeping up a pile of sandbags right by your house, it’s too late. And with climate change intensifying, the water will always find a way over the walls.
So what do we do? Keep building taller and taller barriers? Devastating flooding in the Yorkshire village of Fishlake in 2007 led to a £20m investment in new flood defences. Just 12 years later, the waters are even higher, and locals say the barriers have just pushed the problem downstream.
We'll have to get the hydrologists to confirm it, but it is easy to see why people in Doncaster fear that flood defences in Sheffield built after the 2007 disaster there pushed more water, faster, downstream. We saw that happen in Kendal with Storm Desmond in 2015: areas that no one thought would flood received water from newly-protected upstream areas. Water has to go somewhere. If it is kept out from one place, it will go to another.
We need to tackle this problem upstream – quite literally. We must reverse the environmental degradation and poor land management in the uplands of catchment areas, looking at ways to restore and rewild our countryside to work with nature, rather than against it. By enriching our natural world and making it more resilient to rainfall, we can also protect our homes, businesses and communities from the horror of flooding every winter.
Nine years ago, the government’s own recommendations for flook risk for the River Don found that better land management in the uplands could slow the flow by up to 10 per cent, but such advice has been ignored, and the uplands have continued to be stripped. Just last year, the Environment Agency published the most comprehensive evidence base for working with natural processes to mitigate flooding. This is the direction we need to take.
This means planting trees and restoring soil to slow the flow. It means using unproductive land to store water. It means stopping the destructive practice of stripping the uplands for the bloodsport of grouse shooting. It means ending urban development where we concrete over everything including gardens and then wonder why rainwater has nowhere to go. It means no more building on floodplains, which even Labour are in favour of.
These floods make it clear why it’s so important to decarbonise every single sector of the economy, rather than just industry. We need a Green New Deal for our natural world too. Where Greens lead, others follow, and it has been fantastic to see the Green New Deal which we developed in 2008 being adopted by politicians ranging from Democratic candidates in the US, to Labour here in the UK. However, we are still the originators and the experts. And neither of the main parties have caught up with the scale of the ecological emergency, in the way that they are taking aim at the climate emergency.
There must be a plan for restoring our natural world to promote natural flood management, creating good green jobs and putting local decision making back into land use. Our Green New Deal does exactly this, changing the system to put people, community and protection of our countryside first, right at the heart of policy making where it should be.
Amelia Womack is deputy leader of the Green Party