climate change politics

Thinking ahead in a changing climate

One of London’s more unusual tourist attractions is the Thames Barrier, a rotating barrier that can be raised in high tides to prevent flooding in London. It’s been raised last week because of a particularly dangerous storm surge.

When it was being designed in the 1970s, the engineers took a long view. They accounted for climate change, expecting that the barrier would have to close more often as the sea level rose and that it would have to handle stronger and higher tides. They over-engineered the barrier accordingly, making sure that it wouldn’t be rendered obsolete by our changing planet. It is estimated that it will still be able to stop storm surges for another forty to fifty years.

Since it was built the barrier has been raised more often with each successive decade. In operation since 1982, the barrier was only needed 4 times in the 1980s. It was raised 35 times in the 1990s, and 80 times between 2000 and 2010. The Environment Agency expect that as sea levels rise, that trend will continue.

We can be thankful that the designers of the Thames Barrier had such foresight – and we should demand a similar level of forward planning from current projects. If I lived on a flood plain, I wouldn’t want a climate sceptic designing the flood defences – but Britain’s current environment secretary is Owen Paterson, who is noticeably relaxed about climate change. The government has cut funding for flood defences, then changed its mind and partially re-instated them, but with a shortfall that we may come to regret.

Likewise, some are concerned that the government’s current proposals for flood insurance don’t account for climate change. By the government’s own estimation, a million more people will be put at risk of flooding by 2020. The Climate Change Risk Assessment clearly hasn’t been read properly over at DEFRA, where the baseline scenario for the insurance plan “assumes that flood risk remains the same over time.”

The trouble is, by the time the problems emerge, those making the plans now will no longer be in power. That makes it all the more important that we hold our leaders accountable now.



  1. Why should we subsidise people who choose to live in flood plains? Don’t we want them to move to higher ground? Rising insurance rates for them are a useful push.

      1. That is an argument that if the government is going to spend money it does so to buy houses from sellers on flood plains to knock them down. At least that solves the problem.

        Subsidising insurance so those currently living there can sell to others just means different people get flooded.

        1. This is for people who are stuck. If you’ve been flooded once, it may never happen again, or not for decades – but you can’t get insurance. If you can’t get insurance and you are flooded again, you’d lose everything. But neither can you move out, because whoever was buying the house would need flood insurance as a condition of the mortgage.

          Hence Flood RE. Sounds like a good idea to me. It excludes the highest risk areas incidentally, where people will need to be helped in other ways, and it doesn’t include new houses so no one is incentivised to build new houses in flood areas.

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