Christmas, a supposedly cozy, relaxed and happy time for many, got significantly dampened this year for millions in the U.K. due to serious floods in the north of the country. As the rain pummeled down, hundreds of soldiers were called to help flood victims deal with “unprecedented” flooding. Discussions about the causes and future prevention of Britain's extreme flooding have intensified since rescuers evacuated homes in York, where the River Ouse reached 5.1 meters above normal summer levels, and as homes and businesses in flood-stricken areas eagerly awaited the emergency financial assistance the government promised.
Earlier in December, Storm Desmond brought torrential rain to many parts of northern England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with certain areas experiencing a month’s worth of rainfall in just 48 hours. What was described as “one of the worst” storms Britain has ever seen, Storm Desmond created chaos as hundreds of homes and businesses were flooded.
Now the notion that Britain’s burgeoning flood crisis was aggravated by climate change is gathering impetus. Former Labour environmental secretary Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central, a northern city that was also hit badly by flooding over Christmas, told the BBC that climate change was bringing wetter winters to Britain. Benn said the Christmas flooding was the worst he’d ever seen in Leeds, and called for increased investment to tackle the flooding crisis.
In response to the devastation caused by Storm Desmond, researchers from Oxford University and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute said manmade climate change was partly responsible for the U.K.’s recent catastrophic floods. Environmental experts are calling on the U.K. to "up its game" in the race against flooding and other extreme weather. As Gail Whiteman, chair of the Pentland Centre for Sustainability at Lancaster University, told the Guardian: “Extreme weather will increase with global warming and thus climate adaptation measures, like flood defenses, need to constantly be updated. What may appear to be sufficient to withstand a 1-in-100-year event can become quickly out of date as the incidence of extreme weather ramps up and becomes more unpredictable.”
A Conservative Deaf Ear
However, as calls to do more to tackle climate change become markedly urgent in the UK, the Conservative government seems intent not only to uphold its complacent attitude toward global warming, but to seriously jeopardize the agreed targets to limit global temperature rise to 2º Celsius.
The Conservatives’ commitment to favor shale gas extraction – despite intense opposition from environmental groups and campaigners who warn of the detrimental impacts fracking has on the environment – is evident in the shocking new fracking law recently passed in the U.K.
Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to go all-out to extract Britain's shale gas reserves in a bid to help offset declining North Sea oil and gas output. But it was only earlier this month, following acrimonious debate, that the British government actually passed legislation enabling fracking to occur at more than 1,200 meters below the country's national parks and other areas of outstanding beauty.
Members of Parliament voted in favor of the fracking measures by a slim margin of 298-261. As a result, shale gas drillers will be able to drill horizontally into gas deposits found beneath U.K. national parks, though wellheads must be situated outside of protected zones. So long as they're able to drill from outside those protective zone boundaries, frackers will soon be able to drill beneath World Heritage Sites, Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, Groundwater Protection Zones, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and national parks.
As a result, the Conservative government has been accused of making an “outrageous U-turn” after it promised an “outright ban on fracking in national parks” a year ago in January. Under the coalition Conservative and Liberal Democrat government, prior to the General Election in May, Britain imposed a ban on the extraction of shale gas inside national parks.
Labour, the opposition party, has accused the Tories of “rushing through” shale gas policy. As Lisa Nandy, Labour’s shadow energy and climate secretary, said: “Rather than addressing public concerns over fracking, ministers are using a parliamentary backdoor to put through these weak regulations without a proper debate.”
The timing of the new fracking law couldn’t be stranger, given the promises made last month at the historic UN climate change conference in Paris. Following two decades of talks and fraught debate, the Paris summit saw 195 nations sign an agreement to end the fossil fuel era and commit to a universal agreement to reduce greenhouse emissions and keep global temperatures below the 2º threshold.
The champagne corks had barely had time to be swept up amid the Paris celebrations when the Tories announced the new policy, giving hydro-fracking companies the ability to drill into Britain’s most protected sites and endanger the health of humans, wildlife and the environment.
The announcement caused immediate uproar among environmental campaigners. Greenpeace's Hannah Martin spoke of her dismay at the U.K. government's turnaround on fracking, saying, “If we are to hold our end of the Paris climate change deal then it’s completely incompatible to continue to support fracking – an entirely new form of fossil fuel extraction in the U.K.”
“Personally I’m shocked that instead of focusing on safe, cheap and clean energy that David Cameron wants to force fracking on us – and that his government is even prepared to water down regulations that would have at least protected some of the country’s most fragile areas,” she continued.
At the same time, 2015 was a year awash in anti-fracking demonstrations and protests across the U.K. A particularly memorable protest included fashion designer Vivienne Westwood who drove a military tank through David Cameron’s constituency home in Oxfordshire to protest fracking. Westwood’s actions were in response to an announcement made in August that the government would offer licenses for fracking in 27 locations in various U.K. counties.
In October, almost 2,000 people gathered on a bridge near Edinburgh in Scotland in an anti-fracking protest. Other Frack Off protests were simultaneously staged throughout the country as part of a nationwide protest calling on government to respond to public outcry and oppose the fracking processes.
Nonetheless, at a time when the nation could be showing solidarity and commitment towards battling climate change and its devastating effects, as seen in the recent flooding, the Conservative government has displayed no sign of listening to the frack opposition and adopting a more environmentally sensible approach.