From Cumbria to Paris: when climate change gets personal

flood cumbriaThis post is by Green Alliance associate Rebecca Willis and also appears on her website.

I write this in the aftermath of Storm Desmond, which battered my home town of Kendal this weekend. I am lucky to live up a hill and, over the weekend, our house filled with flood refugees. We hunkered down to watch films as the wind howled outside. Today, a sizeable portion of my town is still under water. Schools are closed, which my kids obviously think is brilliant. But across the county of Cumbria, the devastation is truly terrible. It is only this morning, as the waters subside, that the extent of the damage to homes, livelihoods, transport and infrastructure is becoming clear.

When you’re in the middle of something like this, you focus on the practicalities, like who needs my help? And even, where can I buy mops and wellies? It seems far too early, insensitive even, to think about the causes of the floods, when people don’t know where they’ll be sleeping tonight.

Yet, this same week, a new agreement on climate change is being hammered out by negotiators in Paris. So, given that my working life is all about climate change, I feel I have to speak out. For me, this is the week that climate change got personal.

As any climate scientist will tell you, any one extreme weather event cannot be directly attributed to climate change. There have always been floods. But the links can be drawn (see this article for more on the science). What’s happening in Cumbria is squarely in line with climate models, which predict more frequent, higher intensity storms. As an Environment Agency spokesperson said, these floods are an “unprecedented event”. They are worse than the last time our county was badly hit, just six years ago in 2009. Cumbria has now had three major floods in a decade (2005, 2009 and 2015). In Keswick, the River Greta overran the impressive defences built after the last floods.

So, today, I feel sad about the effects of the floods on friends, family and fellow Cumbrians. I feel relief that I live in a country with strong infrastructure and emergency services. I have deep sympathy for flood victims in Chennai who don’t, and where the cost is counted in lives lost, not pounds and pence.

I also feel angry. I feel angry at those who persist in denying the science, when the evidence is so strong, and when the effects are with us here and now. I feel angry at those who think we can’t afford to make the changes we need to combat climate change, when the costs – financial and otherwise – are so very much higher.

But with this sadness and anger comes hope: that Paris proves to be the turning point that we so desperately need. So, to all my friends and family at home: keep smiling and keep on mopping. To all my friends and colleagues in Paris: think of us, and fight hard.

Rebecca Willis was the author of After the floods: lessons for climate adaptation and resilience from three local areas, a Green Alliance policy insight following the floods in the winter of 2013-14.




  • Thanks for this Becky – it must have been absolutely awful and I think anyone who doesn’t feel compassion for those who have suffered from flooding must be pretty stone-hearted. My mum lost many of her treasured possessions in several floods that affected her house, so I can imagine a little what those whose houses have been flooded again in Cumbria are going through.

    While attention inevitably should turn to the possible links to climate change, and what can be done to mitigate the increases in greenhouse gases that are causing it, we should also consider what adaptation means for somewhere like Cumbria. For example, what would have happened if many more of those upland catchments were covered in woodland, or even just a mosaic of grassland, heathland, scrub and woodland, mire and flush. What are the consequences of agriculturally improved fields with field drains which speed rainfall from the hills into the rivers, and what is the impact of soil compaction caused by overgrazing by sheep, or the wheels of farm machinery?

    I am not talking about rewilding, but simply reducing the intensity of land management on the fells, to hold water back, in what it seems will become regular intense rainfall events such as the one just past.

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