Transition Culture

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25 Mar 2014

Living with Climate Change: Adrian Tait on the Somerset Levels

Somerset floods

Transition Athelney links five villages on or bordering the Somerset Levels.  At the February meeting of our organising group we were asking ourselves what contribution we could possibly make in response to the disruption and suffering caused by the prolonged flooding.  An answer presented itself a few days later when a member of T.A. who is a local councillor with a lifetime’s knowledge and experience of land management in Somerset, gave me a draft document to read. 

He was gathering local views on his detailed proposals for remedial action.  He was also asking for T.A’s endorsement of this document, for submission to the County Council’s consultation process, ahead of its feedback to DEFRA. My friend’s document highlighted the complexity and interconnectedness of the issues affecting us.  Weighing their relative importance is a demanding task, even before cost and funding sources, special interest and political factors enter the picture.

Upstream, midstream and downstream river catchment, land management and intensive farming, protecting homes vs food production, the growth of our County town (Taunton), dredging and drainage, the tidal range of the Bristol Channel, all have to be considered.  The roles and perspectives of central and local government, the Environment Agency, Internal Drainage Board and environmental or wildlife organisations also feature prominently.  One of the report’s aims was to address muddle and conflict between these agencies and the danger of local voices being drowned out by them. 

The document revealed an impressive grasp of all these issues.  Its proposed remedies to soil erosion (one source of the silt problem) and rapid run-off into the upper reaches of our County’s rivers include reforestation and hedge renewal.  They make good sense and draw on the example of Pontbren, as highlighted by George Monbiot and others.  But despite the depth and breadth of this analysis, three linked factors concerned me.  One was that I felt too much credence was being given to the scapegoating of the Environment Agency.  The second was a dearth of reference to climate change and how it loads the dice towards extreme weather. 


I asked him about his fleeting mention of climate change and reference to its impacts as a future prospect, rather than a current and escalating reality.  He was agreeable to changing the latter point, but was wary of increasing the overall emphasis on climate change, for fear of putting people off, and not having the document taken seriously! 

The Environment Agency is widely seen as having a confused agenda, with ecological considerations being given undue prominence, at the expense of human needs.  I am not qualified to judge how well or badly the E.A. reconciles these criteria, but what I do pick up is a perception (fanned of course by elements in the media) that it’s an either/or matter, rather than a set of perspectives which must be integrated because, as Tony Juniper puts it, the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of planetary ecology. 

The third thing which troubled me in the document was something which again reflected widely held views and feelings.  This was that local people find the prospect of the Levels reverting to marshland “completely unacceptable”.  This phrase reminded me of COIN’s illustrated report Moving Stories, which documents the plight of those caught up in climate related migration in places as far flung as the Arctic and Indonesia, China and the Sahel.  How “acceptable” is the situation of all these people?  Presumably, feelings of fear, anger and helplessness make it harder for people to look at their predicament from a global perspective, even when the data are readily available. 

This may not matter all that much when we are discussing adaptation, but it gives few grounds for optimism to those of us who hope that weather disasters will serve as a wake up call to assist mitigation measures.   This was illustrated in a BBC television programme on 4th February, when people from one of our flooded hamlets were interviewed, then shown a report explaining climate change, including the fact that several decades of further heating are now locked into the system.  The extreme weather implications were spelt out clearly.  This section was followed by further interviews, but I saw no evidence that climate change had entered people’s narratives, at least at a conscious level. 

On a more positive note, T.A’s involvement in the report did increase its engagement with climate change in a way that spans mitigation and adaptation.   The river Parrett (into which the Tone, which gives its name to Taunton, flows) is tidal, well into the Levels.  I had not heard anyone locally talking much about sea level rise as a key factor.  Dredging, whilst still an emotive issue, is now widely recognised to be no magic bullet.  A sluice in Bridgwater bay has been mooted, but it is currently hard to see where the funding would come from and the benefits beyond Bridgwater itself would be limited.  The report now advocates exploring the feasibility of a tidal lagoon (as is now proposed for Swansea bay).  This could attract private funding, by virtue of  projected revenue from electricity generation.   

That BBC cross-referencing was good, even if it did not find immediately fertile ground here.  On the same day, Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, spoke in London of the “merciless” process of climate change and the urgent need to remove fossil fuel subsidies and to price carbon emissions effectively.  Our Chancellor clearly wasn’t listening, but hopefully others were.  We should not wait for those in the merciless firing line to join the dots, but the number of people in the rich world who find themselves directly facing it, along with millions in places less well known to us, is growing.  Perhaps it’s not too late for the cries of distress from within (and on) our own shores to coalesce with the warnings from climate science and help to concentrate the minds of our policy makers. 

Somerset’s inland sea can seem beautiful, though not to those whose houses, land and roads have been inundated.  As the water is pumped away and the fields begin to dry out, we begin to get wafts from the rotting vegetation, reminders of the stench which hit us after the flood of Summer 2012.  There is an obvious parallel with the stink of political and economic business as usual.  Somerset County Council’s report, which the T.A. contribution had a hand in shaping, makes frequent reference to “resilience”.  Does this signal a promising shift in thinking along lines advocated by Transition, a helplessness in the face of future disasters, or is it merely empty language, a few vain drops of perfume, to mask the signs of social and environmental decay?       

Adrian Tait, 20th March 2014 

Adrian is Chairman of Transition Athelney and a founder member of the Climate Psychology Alliance.