Friday, 14 February 2014

The Dutch are here!

We must assume that everything will be OK now: the Dutch are here pumping out the Somerset Levels, and experts from Royal Haskoning DHV have flown in from Holland to advise on recovery! We can be reassured because Haskoning staff are on the TV providing proper Dutch advice: so, we had all better listen!

It was therefore interesting to hear the Dutch engineer from Haskoning on Channel 4 tonight. Presented as an expert who had been involved in New Orleans, the message was clear – at last we have people who know what they are doing! And so, what were the great words of wisdom? Well, hardly rocket science:

  • The UK and Holland cannot be directly compared because a lot of Holland lies below sea level.
  • The Dutch spend about £600m on flood defence each year.
  • The UK should spend more money.
  • Prioritise what you will protect and what you will let go.

Somewhere I think I have heard something similar, or have I been labouring under false illusions? If I recall correctly, we have Defra and Treasury guidance on cost-benefit analysis. What is this for? Well, it it is not a framework for prioritisation, then I must be sadly mistaken. And, what have we heard from the Environment Agency? I seem to recall Chris Smith saying that the problem was working within the allocated budgets. I also seem to recall that the EA has been forced to cut 1700 jobs this year to save money.

Perhaps what the press should also have said was that many of the flood risk management strategies prepared by the Environment Agency are the work of consultants. They include, to a no small extent, Royal Haskoning DHV! I'd like to get a press and Government 'take' on this and maybe a comment from Eric Pickles on the wisdom of using British-based Dutch consultants.

We must take comfort that there are now proper experts in the UK who will make sure we don't flood again. If there is to be considerably more expenditure on flood defence, money must be found from somewhere. Or, are we going to have to borrow more? The danger is that other environmental management programmes will have to be cut further – maybe water and air quality or perhaps nature conservation?

Fast-forward, The reporting of Channel 4 moved on to the issue of climate change and there were several good sound bites; not least a clear story of extreme weather events in Malaysia and the USA. Unusually high rainfall and associated fatalities in Malaysia were reported, as was extreme drought and very high winter temperatures in California. The message was also clear – basic physics dictates that if the world gets hotter then there will be greater evaporation from the oceans and consequently more rainfall - but not evenly spread around the World.

All of this extreme weather ties in with the predictions. In the case of the UK, the predictions were for more rainfall and increased storminess. Regardless of the cause of climate change, the message is pretty clear: the modelers' predictions are starting to be realised. These, of course, are British modelers, so perhaps the Government had better bring in modelers from a country that knows more about modeling? I'm not sure who might be best placed to do this – maybe Germans, Swiss, Swedish or maybe American? Anybody, as long as they are not fifth columnists from a UK University or institute.

This piece included three interviews with the general public. Two respondents indicated that they had yet to be convinced about climate change, whilst the third came up with the usual point: if there is global warming why is it turning wet and stormy. In other words, global warming equates to nice warm weather. The skeptics must have loved this as the whole message was that somebody had got things wrong here too. I wonder whether there was anybody who said yes they did believe it was climate change? If these three interviewees were representative of the populus as a whole, then a sea-change in action is highly unlikely and we will simply bounce back 50 years to the tried and tested techniques that got us into this mess.

The above might suggest that I am simply having a rant, but actually there is sound logic at the back of what I have said. The point is that the UK has been taking the advice of experts; be they Royal Haskoning's UK arm, or Russell Group universities. On the one hand, we market UK education as amongst the best in the World whilst, on the other, we castigate the products of those universities because they have failed to stop unprecedented floods and storms. Maybe it is time for the policical establishment to wake up to some really hard truths: we have failed to act because out political establishment contains very few scientists. I wonder how many of the current bunch of MPs has an 'O Level' in Physics or Chemistry or, more especially an 'A-Level' in those subjects. I wonder how many have a science-based degree?

If we are to put the 'Great' back into Britain, we need a radical change in direction. Decision-makers need to be equipped with apropriate levels of scientific training. Science needs to be held in the highest esteem and rewarded accordingly. Perhaps the selection committees for prospective parliamentary candidates should have a new set of questions relating to the candidate's ability to understand, assimilate, and act upon sound science? Perhaps the degree in economics or politics and training for government as a 'special advisor' should be replaced by a degree in Physics, Chemistry or Engineering and a spell in the Met Office or an engineering consultancy.

No comments:

Post a Comment