Northern Ireland goes naked into the storms

9 Sep 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 21 Sep 2016

Some Northern Ireland politicians dispute the cause of global warming. Some even have unconventional views about the age and history of the earth. But you can’t argue with facts. 

It is a verified fact that global warming is happening. And it is also a fact that global warming is bringing other consequences for us: warmer summers, milder and wetter winters, rising sea levels, and increased incidents of extreme weather: violent storms, prolonged, heavy downpours and the like.

We do not need to join the debate between religious fundamentalists and scientists, or between environmentalists and vested business interests to understand that the earth is warming up and that this has consequences:  a glance at the Met Office’s records will confirm all that.

Here are just a few examples of “extreme weather events” that have hit Northern Ireland in the past few years, provided for us by Climate NI.

On 16 August 2008 prolonged and heavy rain caused serious disruption to public services, including the closure of the West Link (Broadway Underpass) due to flooding.

In March 2010 a severe ice storm resulted in 140,000 customers being left without electricity. Around 300 workers needed to be drafted in from the Republic and GB to repair 125km of overhead line, a process which took five days.  

During December 2010 and January 2011 the worst freezing weather in 100 years resulted in major water supply disruptions, affecting 450,000 consumers across Northern Ireland.

On 27 June 2012 more than 1,400 properties were flooded in Belfast.

On 29 Jan 2016 around 5,000 customers were left without electricity following severe gales with gusts of up to 70 mph, which swept across Northern Ireland

Many regard these as “freak events” so-called “Acts of God”. If that’s what they are then God has become very busy messing with our weather in recent times.

Across Europe the cost of extreme weather events in Europe has risen by 50% in 30 years. In 2007, UK floods were estimated to cost businesses £740 million, some never recovered.

These trends bring with them some potential benefits: the possibility of growing new crops, a warmer summer bringing more tourists being two examples. But there are also many risks: increased flooding, storm damage, coastal erosion, severe disruption to our transport and electricity infrastructures and the ability of our health and other emergency services to cope with a natural disaster.

Across the globe governments are making their own plans to mitigate the impacts of impending climate change, except, funnily enough, in Northern Ireland.

Responses to climate change take two main forms: measures to reduce carbon emissions, which most scientists agree will slow down the process of global warming, and measures to lessen the impact of predicted weather events on the health, well-being and in extreme cases survival of the infrastructure and population.

Northern Ireland is in the unusually vulnerable positon of having neither.

Last year the then Environment Minister Mark H. Durkan championed a Climate Change Bill. It did not get picked up by the Executive and we are left as the only part of the UK without one.

The new Programme for Government is designed to break new ground, its outcomes-based approach is supposed to move governmental strategy from short to long term, with policies to serve a generation. A perfect formula for addressing disturbing long-term climactic change. Well apparently not. There is not a single mention of climate change in the document.

The disregard of the fact of climate change and its many attendant risks is an act of collective reckless negligence by politicians and policy makers. It flies in the face of all the evidence, accepted at Westminster, every other part of these islands and regimes of all political make up across the world.

So if we do, God forbid, face catastrophic consequences as a result of the failure to plan for the worst we will at least have the consolation of knowing precisely who to blame.

Every organisation needs to carry out rigorous risk assessments and to have plans in place should things go wrong, except it would seem when the organisation concerned is our own government and the risks are both known about and known to be growing.

Let’s be clear about this. We are not even talking about reducing carbon emissions. We are purely examining what needs to be done to prepare for existing and future risk.

Many businesses and publicly funded bodies are aware of the dangers and have been working with Climate NI on how government should respond. These include BT, Belfast Harbour Commissioners, NIE, ASDA, and a whole raft of officials from a range of pre-merger government departments and arms-length bodies, including the Housing Executive, Translink and more.

Their collective conclusions and priorities are to be found here. They make for disturbing reading. The fact that this piece of work was commissioned and organised by a charity and not government itself is telling.

So what should government do?

Climate NI calls what is required Resilience – the ability for public services to continue to be provided in the face of the shocks and stresses that adverse events will bring.

At the moment action is taking place, but generally in response to something going wrong: for example, steps were improved to increase the resilience of the Westlink after the 2008 floods. Troubles veterans will be familiar with this kind of government response, we used to call it “Operation Stable Door.”

But there are far too many areas where either not enough is known about the future implications of changing weather patterns, or where there is no credible disaster plan in place.

Across Northern Ireland an alarming one in 18 homes are at risk of flooding, and that is based on current climactic conditions. The number is set to rise. So where is the overall plan to deal with this and, given the risk, why is Northern Ireland the only part of the UK not to have a flood warning system in place? Just take one contributory factor: the practice many people have of tarmacking their front gardens. This directs water into the sewage system instead of it being absorbed in the ground. Where is the strategy to stop and reverse this?

We live on an island surrounded by a rising sea. Can anyone explain why we have no over-arching coastal erosion strategy and why there is not a single entity responsible for protecting us from the impact of coastal damage? The Assembly’s research team has just published a fascinating paper on the challenges we face which can be accessed here. It would be interesting to know why there has been no public discussion about the policy shift away from protecting threatened areas with sea defences when so many homes, roads and even rail links are in danger.

What about our building stock? Where is the research about the impact of a damper climate on hones and heritage buildings? If we don’t know what might happen we can’t even begin to know what to do to limit the damage.

And, if we want to be positive for a moment, what opportunities does a warmer climate bring for agri-business? Is research underway? Are experiments being carried out? Apologies if there are, but we could not find any official reports on this.

Because of its location the island of Ireland is the windiest part of Europe. It is also an island dependent upon sea and air ports for food and other essentials. What would happen if Belfast port and both airports were closed by storms for a few days? This is not inconceivable. But Is there a contingency plan for this?

And are we confident that our hospitals could cope with a major natural disaster when A&Es don’t seem to be able to cope with business as usual during the winter period?

What is required is investment in research on potential present and future impacts of climate change, and the development of robust plans to deal with the worst nature can throw at us.

This would even be good for the economy – other countries spend heavily on resilience measures.

We cannot allow politicians and policy makers to mutter about Acts of God the next time we get hit by extreme weather. We know it is coming, we just don’t know when and where.

At present we are being thrown naked into the coming storms.


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