Unprecedented does not mean unexpected

The word of the moment is unprecedented. First we had unprecedented rain in Cumbria, then unprecedented rain in Lancashire and the latest unprecedented rain is in Yorkshire. In a few days we may well have more unprecedented rain. Everyone knows that we cannot control the weather therefore we can hardly be critical of government when mass flooding is the result of unprecedented rain.

This sounds a bit like the bankers comments about unprecedented debt default in 2007/08. But if your risk strategy is based upon calibrating future risk based upon past events you are always in danger of being caught out by changed circumstances. If default levels were low at times when credit was only provided to people who could afford to repay it one cannot use risk levels based on this when you start giving debt to anybody that asks for it, indeed to many who did not even ask for it.

In relation to the unprecedented rain levels they should not have some as a surprise to any government. Earlier in December 195 countries from around the world got together to talk about how collectively they were going to tackle climate change. Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have provided reports making it quite clear that our weather is now and will be more and more affected by climate change. Earlier this year Committee on Climate Change provided a report to the Government warning of precisely the problems we are now facing. The government chose to ignore it.

If you are told that unprecedented weather is likely to become the norm it is not good enough, once that weather comes, to say it is unprecedented as if this provided an excuse. Governments are supposed to have an eye to the future they should be preparing for what is going to happen not what has happened. The last government was much criticised for “failing to mend the roof when the sun was shining”. Ironic that we now have a government who seems to have done the same only rather more literally.

The truth of the matter is the government were unprepared for events which global, international and national agencies have warned about increasingly loudly for years. Expressions about our hearts going out to the victims of this devastation and the sterling work of our brave emergency services and armed forces does not cut it. This government needs to get real about climate change and recognise that it is going to cost serious amounts of money for sustained periods. The longer we pretend this is not the case the worse it will be in terms of personal upset and disruption and societal cost.

There is one important thing we should not lose sight of and that is the low number of casualties and very low fatalities resulting from these floods. This is in large part a testament to the improvements in weather warnings issued by the met office and Environment Agency. Timely warnings have enabled, in the main, contingency plans to be put in to operation. It is ironic we are so dependent on the micro-forecasting capability of climate scientists whilst we continue to treat the macro warnings with such a cavalier attitude.


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