Rain, floods, global warming, and platitudes

As floods continue to cause havoc over large areas of Britain, politicians, the media and even royalty have been pouring out more rubbish about the weather than we have had rain.

Charles Windsor, for example, put it all down to human 'meddling'. He said: "Some recent occurrences, such as the BSE disaster and even perhaps - dare I mention it? - the present severe weather conditions in our country, are, I have no doubt, the consequences of mankind's arrogant disregard of the delicate balance of nature."

Others, not least Tony Blair, have been claiming that the high winds and intense rainfall are an example of what results from global warming. The point about global warming is that it can be blamed on the working classes insisting on driving their cars to work or even going on holiday by aeroplane. It cannot be blamed on the social system, of course.

It is true that the current floods are the worst since 1947. But, there again, some area will break a record for cold or heat or rain, etc, every year. If one takes 50 variables for any given area, then on average there will be a 50-year record broken every year in that area. This is simply a statistical fact.

Taking this into account, the storms that we have had in the south east of England in 1989-1990, and again this year, are not exceptional - not when they are viewed in an historical context. For instance, a storm in 1703 killed 9,000 people in a population of about 6 million; in 1839, 400 people were killed in floods; and, in 1953, 300 people were killed - again as a result of flooding. David Alexander's book lists much worse calamities than the ones we have seen recently (D Alexander Natural disasters London 1998).

If there is any general trend, it would seem that although storms and heavy rains occur in Britain and other maritime western European countries just as infrequently as in the past, the death rate from such storms has been steadily falling. Although the storms are getting no less fierce, a more solid infrastructure, advances in construction and the provision of social services have produced far fewer casualties.

It is almost inevitable that there will be some disruption from such weather phenomena. Nevertheless there is no reason why damage to property and human casualties cannot be largely prevented through flood protection, more efficient drainage and better design of buildings. Capitalist cost-accounting may consider such measures to be 'not worthwhile', but a society based on need, not profit, would take a rather different view.

We communists are for the ending of the distinction between town and country. For example, in the last week, the Thames Valley had a particular increase in water flow from north Surrey. Yet, although central London is mostly at sea level (and the London Underground has a large portion considerably below sea level) no damage was done to the London area. This is because particular flood control installations are available. We must demand equivalent protection for all areas, not just those where capital deems it to be 'cost-efficient'.

Looking at the question from a global point of view, it is clear that the advanced capitalist countries suffer far fewer deaths or injuries from weather-related activity than do the less developed. In January 1998, areas of the USA and Canada, including Montana and the St Lawrence Seaway, had an ice storm which knocked out the whole electricity supply for Quebec, Montreal and upstate New York. There were no deaths. Last week, Montana got 60 inches of snow in a single day, again with no casualties. This was an all-time record and certainly was not expected at this time of year. Clearly the advanced capitalist countries are better able to cope primarily because of their more developed infrastructures, not because of less severe climatic conditions.

Are these weather phenomena due to climate change? Nigel Calder describes the winter of 1683-84 as being the coldest in southern Britain since the last ice age 10,000 years previously. He lists a series of periods spread out over 100 years of alternating cold and warm since 1470. In 1895 the Thames froze over at Henley (N Calder The manic sun New York 1996). According to another source, "In 1816 it was so cold in England that grain would not ripen" (M Hulme, E Borrow Climates of the British Isles London 1997). On the other hand, Greenland had areas that were farmable in the 9th and 10th centuries. Most of these data are derived from scientific methods such as tree ring growth.

None of these weather variations prove that there is climate change. And even if there were climate change it would not necessarily mean that the weather would become less stable. In fact, the weather is remarkably stable in the Sahara Desert. The view that there is global warming is certainly not backed up by the historical records.

Even more misleading, in my opinion, is the 'explanation' that carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere have produced this outcome. This ignores the fact that the biggest single factor in the 'greenhouse effect' is actually water vapour. But even if we took the viewpoint that the burning of fossil fuels is to blame, then we would have to account for the fact that large volcanoes - which release at least as much carbon dioxide as ash, together with a number of other greenhouse gases - do not appear to cause any large-scale or long-standing effect on the climate.

One illustration of that is the island of Thera in the Adriatic in 1500 BC. A volcano blew 83 cubic kilometres of pulverised ash into the stratosphere and there would have been a corresponding amount of carbon dioxide released. More recently, an eruption on Mount St Helens two decades ago was equally awesome: "The ash column rose to 60 kilometres high" (R Dicker and B Dicker Volcanoes New York 1998).

The real point is that the forces of nature dwarf anything that humanity is doing or can do in relation to its effect on the weather. For instance, 1.37 kilowatts of energy falls on every square metre of the earth's surface. In consequence natural energy supply and dispersion is hundreds of thousands of times greater than the total energy used up by the Earth's population. The Gulf Stream, for instance, releases 1,000 times more energy than humanity does in the whole of western Europe.

None of this suggests that we should not take sensible environmental precautions against damaging the climate, including at a local level. But what is clear is that the ruling class is trying to use green issues, particularly 'global warming' as a cover for their own failure. What a pity that Socialist Worker (November 4) and The Socialist (November 3) echo the same subjectivist line.

Such alarmism frequently leads either to despair or to reactionary solutions. Instead we must have an immediate agenda that requires areas of housing to have upstream flood protection. Flood plains must be left open; there must be proper drainage on rural roads, along with river and canal development. Train services must be protected up to a level commensurate with the population's needs. We also demand sufficient funding for the fire brigade and emergency services.

What we do not need is a load of crap by politicians and propagandists who cannot even read the text books which are available in any local library. They spout platitudes which give them an excuse to sound learned and concerned when their main aim is just to throw dust in the eyes of the population.

Tom May