Jayne Dowle: Floods wash away political excuses on climate change

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JUST imagine if it was Westminster rather than Westmorland under several feet of water.

There would be a national emergency. The country would be on lockdown. If the extreme weather brought across the North of England by Storm Desmond was wreaking havoc down South, I daresay Christmas might even be cancelled.

Yet life has been suspended in Cumbria. Thousands of people have been flooded out of their homes, businesses ruined, electricity brought to a standstill, schools closed and trains halted. Flooding has hit our region too with Ripon, Boroughbridge and York especially badly affected by rising river levels. The forecast is for further heavy rain and strong winds. The sandbags are being filled and fingers crossed.

And what has been the Government’s reaction? So far, the “highlight” has been a lacklustre debate in the House of Commons led by Environment Secretary, Elizabeth Truss and which would have disgraced a sixth form common room.

Ms Truss, who is effectively in charge, hardly inspires confidence. If she thinks that referring to power cuts as “outages” makes her sound all authoritative, she’s got a lot to learn. This is not a disaster movie. This is real life and it is being ruined for countless people by extreme and unpredictable weather conditions.

Has she any idea what a flooded house looks like? The stench. The ruined carpets and kitchen. The precious memories of photographs and heirlooms borne away on the relentless tide. Does she know it takes years, not days, to get things back to anything approaching normal?

The Government must act and must be seen to act. I know Rory Stewart, the Floods Minister, was on the scene. However, his constituency is in Penrith so we shouldn’t expect anything less.

And don’t let the sudden appearance of Prime Minister David Cameron on the frontline fool you either. He was only there because his Government has delayed spending £4m on the flood defences which might have saved some of those homes and businesses from the filthy water engulfing them.

It’s not enough, frankly, to send the Prime Minister. What we have here is a problem that cannot be solved by politicians donning brand-spanking new gumboots and weatherproof jackets and shouting out words like “emergency” and “Cobra committee”. What we have here is more than a little local difficulty with a river bursting its banks. What we have here is actually the “Inconvenient Truth” that former US Vice President Al Gore warned us about. And it is coming true right before our eyes.

I’m no scientist. I couldn’t give you the facts and the figures, but it is clear to anyone looking out of the window that the extreme weather we are experiencing is indication that our climate is underdoing something pretty seismic.

Every politician – including the Prime Minister – will have their own private views on this. They are entitled to these, but I think that we have a right to expect some leadership when we have such a major life-changer before us. A dusty debate in the House of Commons about insurance premiums is not going to hasten this process.

Two things need to be addressed. First of all, there has to be a general admission that our weather is changing and the floods and storms we are experiencing are not freak events that happen somewhere else to someone else.

Once this has been accepted, the Government must take its collective head out of the sand, dig deep and do all it can to protect our towns, cities and communities from being gradually washed away. It is no good David Cameron telling local councils they will be “reimbursed” for the remedial costs incurred. What people want is investment in flood defences rather than a financial mopping-up exercise.

The problem is that we are yet to see any kind of shared political consensus emerging on how as a country we might approach the issue of climate change. Every time a major “weather event” as the Met Office likes to call it impacts upon us, all politicians seem capable of doing is to stand about looking concerned and trying not to say anything too controversial in case they make a silly gaffe.

All this does, frankly, is further outline the gulf between Westminster and the rest of the country. It is no good MPs peering out of the debating chamber, checking that they are not yet submerged by the swirling Thames and carrying on with business as usual.

Their distance – both physical and psychological – puts a divide between them and us wider than any stretch of water. This demands a response much more complex than brave words and shiny wellingtons. What they really need to do is to imagine trying to cross a river which has burst its banks, carrying everything that is precious to them in a rubber dinghy. Then they might begin to understand the scale of a problem that could potentially affect us all.