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The Floods Will Get Worse – Unless the System Changes

The extreme flooding seen across the world, including in London, in recent weeks is the collision of two disasters created by the ruling class – climate change and infrastructural collapse.

A taxi drives through floods in Nine Elms, Southwest London this week. Credit: Justin Tallis / Getty

Since I wrote about this summer’s heatwave earlier this month, the rest of July has been dominated by news of devastating flooding spanning Germany, Belgium, Turkey, China, Uganda, India, and now London. For climate activists, spending so much of our time thinking about the scale and nature of the crisis can take its toll emotionally. Some say they experience ‘eco-anxiety’ or a climate depression and rage. My experience has mostly been of becoming increasingly desensitised to the climate impacts I spend most of my time working to stop. Another summer, another wave of deadly extreme weather.

This summer has hit different, though. I’ve felt a renewed and deeper sadness at the images of extreme flooding. Each car floating down the street, small business submerged, and house destroyed is a small window into a life turned upside down by these events. How many treasured possessions are lost? How many personal savings evaporated paying for repairs? How much debt accrued? How many homes abandoned? How many jobs lost?

On Sunday afternoon, images of the floods in London began to drip in into my Twitter timeline and WhatsApp groups. Perhaps most striking was the river flowing through Pudding Mill Lane DLR station next to the Olympic Park. The complex, built specifically for the London 2012 Olympics, has been controversial because it was constructed on a floodplain in a valley. This is a prime example of short-term profits for property developers trumping long-term planning and environmental considerations. We now live with the consequences as flooding becomes more frequent and severe.

Hitting Home

Most shocking about this round of flooding for me were the videos of flooding in Walthamstow, where many of my partner’s family and friends live. Water gushed down Wood Street and Blackhorse Road. Whipps Cross hospital had to evacuate patients and cancel all outpatient appointments and planned surgeries as a flooded basement caused damage to the electrical system and a loss of power. The E17 Food Bank lost three fridges to damage. The Council’s housing team had to find emergency accommodation for forty-eight people.

I’ve never lived in London, but I’ve spent enough time in Walthamstow for this to hit home hard. I imagine that for many climate activists in the Global North, the growing proximity of climate change-induced disasters to our own communities will sharpen the reality of what we have spoken about so often for years already.

In recent years there has been a trend in some parts of the Western climate movement to strongly emphasise global injustice and the disproportionate impacts of climate change on countries in the Global South least responsible for emissions. While so many around the world already live through the realities of climate change, this has been an important corrective to harmful narratives about climate change as an evenly felt and distant future threat. As flooding hits towns and cities across the UK, the climate movement and the Left now needs to be prepared to talk about what climate change means for us both at home and internationally.

A video clip of a woman in Western Germany speaking in the aftermath of this month’s flooding has been widely commented on. She told an interviewer, ‘You don’t expect people to die in a flood in Germany. You expect it maybe in poor countries, but you don’t expect it here.’ This sentiment has been derided, and her comment was indeed crass, but it was also instructive for two reasons.

First, this is a big part of the story told by much of the climate movement. It is understandably shocking that all of a sudden climate change is devastating communities previously told they were privileged to be relatively insulated from its impacts.

Second, for a long time, Western countries have largely used their resources to secure populations from extreme weather while leaving ‘poor countries’ to reap catastrophe. The West has deprived the Global South of resources while imposing economic models based on privatisation and austerity, producing a heightened vulnerability to extreme weather. Now, those same models of privatisation and austerity imposed domestically are exposing the growing inadequacy of infrastructure to maintain resilience to flooding. Large sections of London’s infrastructure were built in the Victorian era for a Victorian climate.

The chronic underinvestment in the UK’s economy is making an ever-widening portion of the population vulnerable to flooding and other extreme weather. Without serious levels of public investment and international transfers of finance, communities in the Global North and Global South will experience an increasingly shared vulnerability to extreme flooding.

Cross-Class Coalitions

Since 2010, in the UK, the Tories have consolidated their rule with a political coalition of the bourgeoisie, pensioners, and homeowners. It is a common story across capitalist democracies of so many people being invested in the status quo through the perceived security and status afforded to them by their one house, their car(s), their pension, and perhaps their small business. In an uncertain world with diminishing social security, these properties have been a source of protection from the harshest brutalities of capitalism for many ordinary people fortunate enough to access them.

All of a sudden, the threat of extreme flooding makes the security of such property much more precarious. Government and private insurance too often are unwilling to guarantee cover for a destroyed home, a car that has floated down the street, or a small business unable to recover on its own. In this context, investing your sense of personal security against deprivation in the status quo appears far less rational. Of course, it will always be the poorest and most marginalised who are worst affected by extreme weather. When homes are damaged, tenants are dependent on exploitative landlords and migrants extra vulnerable to the whims of the Home Office.

Could the threats of extreme weather present the basis of a renewed cross-class coalition of the poorest and property-owning middle classes joined together by what they stand to lose, as well as what they could gain from a new economic settlement?

Some environmentalists have suggested that knowledge or experience of the effects of climate change will inspire populations and governments into action. If only the government would ‘tell the truth’; if only lawmakers ‘listened to the science’; if only climate change was taught more accurately in schools. Of course, knowledge of the crisis is important, but its inevitably insufficient alone for driving change. Similarly, new cross-class coalitions around these shared interests will not emerge on their own. They must be forged through organising and by communicating a compelling politics of climate justice rooted in the material interests of the majority of the population (and antagonism with the interests of the ruling elite).

The Labour Party, for example, must refine the story it tells about the climate crisis and what it can offer in response. Labour’s Mayor of London Sadiq Khan responded to the flooding in his city in the Guardian by just telling a technocratic story of all the things he’s doing. Coming across as any other opportunistic politician, his focuses were legally binding targets; ‘supporting individuals and businesses to make greener choices’; low-emissions zones and low-traffic neighbourhoods; and fortifying flood defences. Some of these policies are good and needed. Others are self-defeating. Overall, the sum of Khan’s pitch remains insufficient to the scale of the crisis and does not sell a vision for climate justice and economic transformation in towns and cities. The key message instead seems to be that Khan is a competent Mayor.

Labour is uniquely positioned in British politics to speak about a prosperous and secure future for all rooted in new models of ownership, guaranteeing good green jobs, reindustrialisation, public investment, international solidarity and reparations, meeting everyone’s needs through public services, and collective insurance and social security so that nobody is abandoned in a disaster.

If we want to win big on climate justice, arresting emissions which cause extreme flooding and repairing for the damage those impacts inflict, we need a mass movement and a social majority of the population supporting an ambitious Green New Deal. That means peeling off a big chunk of the Tories’ property-owning coalition—those who’ve paid off a mortgage, have a nice car, or run a small business—by investing them in a political project which improves the material conditions of the many while tackling the climate catastrophe caused by the elite few.