After the floods: can we tame the weather?

Saturday 18 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Cinema 2, Barbican Contemporary Controversies

The catastrophic floods across parts of the UK early this year prompted concerns about how we should deal with extreme weather. Arguments rage over causes and solutions. Some have argued, for example, that overbuilding on flood plains, deforestation of upland areas and intensive farming may be exacerbating the situation. Others point to the successes of London’s Thames Barrier and the Netherlands’ extensive drainage system as proof that ready solutions are at hand, and blame the Environment Agency for not performing basic flood-defence tasks like dredging. But among these technical debates, there are those who see the floods as proof of broader problems. So many believe, even without concrete causal evidence, that climate change is causing extreme weather events with increasing frequency and severity. There are also those who argue we need a more radical rethink of how humanity coexists with nature.

In this context, perhaps the best solution lies in letting nature take care of its own flood defences by allowing large parts of the country to revert to natural habitats; ‘rewilding’ has becomes a serious policy option. It has even been suggested that beavers, extinct in the UK since the eighteenth century, should be reintroduced in order to build dams. Elsewhere in the world, people are thinking bigger, attempting not just to control the impacts of extreme weather but actually controlling the weather systems themselves by geo-engineering. Proposals include building giant tornado barriers across 100 miles of America’s Midwest, ‘respraying’ the Earth’s depleted atmosphere and blasting the sky with lasers in order to manipulate weather patterns and even act as a ‘rain switch.’ Yet while such plans exist more in the dreams of researchers than at prototype stage, they have already been met with criticism for fear that such interference in natural eco-systems might provoke even greater repercussions further down the line. But in the real world, perhaps the choice is less between beavers and sci-fi solutions, and more the implementation of practices such as improving irrigation and managing drainage ditches round farms. But whatever the preferred policies, there is no doubt that the floods have opened the gates to deeper political and philosophical debates about man’s relationship with the natural world.

Are critics right to imply human beings are still a long way from being able to control and withstand the fearsome whims of Mother Nature? Do the most effective forms of flood defence lie in adapting to the landscape rather than adapting the landscape for human habitation? Is it simply common sense that any large-scale attempts to modify the weather or climate come at an unacceptably high risk to future generations of ‘blowback’? What do the weather wars reveal about our attitudes to risk and innovation today?

Andrew Orlowski
executive editor, Register; assistant producer, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

Steve Rayner
James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization; director, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, University of Oxford

Bryony Sadler
campaigner, Flooding on the Levels Action Group

Peter Sammonds
professor of geophysics at UCL; director, UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction

Rossa Minogue
online media producer, Academy of Ideas
Recommended readings
Podcast: ‘Climate alarmism turns politics into the art of the impossible’

Ben Pile says the floods are a crisis of British infrastructure, not climate change.

Ben Pile, spiked, 18 February 2014

Hill farmers hit back at Monbiot over rewilding calls

George Monbiot has been accused of making ‘wild accusations’ about upland farming by a farmer who appeared in a feature with the environmentalist and journalist on BBC’s Countryfile programme.

Alistair Driver, Farmers Guardian, 30 January 2014

Farmers urged by WWF to do more to prevent flooding

Farmers getting public grants should be forced to capture water on their land to prevent floods downstream, environmentalists have said

Roger Harrabin, BBC, 29 January 2014

Geoengineering plan could have 'unintended' side effect

Attempts to reverse the impacts of global warming by injecting reflective particles into the stratosphere could make matters worse, say researchers.

Matt McGrath, BBC, 8 January 2014

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