Europe: Climate Impacts Have Never Hit Closer to Home

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A flooded farm at Othery village in Somerset. Photograph: Emma Stoner/Ecoscene/Barcroft Media

A flooded farm at Othery village in Somerset. Photograph: Emma Stoner/Ecoscene/Barcroft Media

 

 

I’ve seen all the hard data, digested all the scary graphs, seen all the heartbreaking photos from the Arctic. I’ve heard reports from other people across the world [on] what impact climate change is having on their lives and there’s nothing that I haven’t believed. But up until this winter I hadn’t really felt the full effects myself.

Jonathan Smith, organic farmer

IPCC report readers might be familiar with the connection between extreme weather events and climate change, but when the Met Office spelled out that link in relation to UK storms and flooding of late 2013 and early 2014, many people took notice.

“We have records going back to 1766 and we have nothing like this”. That’s how Met Office’s Chief Scientist, Dame Julia Slingo, characterised the unusual flooding taking place in the UK at the beginning of last month. Comments like this, and the others that followed, cemented in British public opinion what climate impacts look like, when they hit close to home.

Jonathan, an organic farmer on the Isles of Scilly, UK, took notice as well. Here’s what he had to say about the climate-charged events he’s been through in the last couple of months:

As I looked on, the fragile coastline between my fields and the sea was getting eaten away before my eyes. The trees making up the hedge, the only windbreak I have, were just toppling over and ending up on the beach.

One more storm like 1st February will destroy the hedgerow and some fields will be completely open to the wind – and therefore unsuitable for growing vegetables. This could happen in 20 years or next winter. How do I plan my business around such uncertainties?

Can we talk about climate change now?

Climate activists in Oxford, February 2014

 

Europe is home to some of the largest historical carbon polluters, and for a long time climate change has conjured distant images of drowning Pacific islands and thawing polar ice caps. In the past decade, consequences of those emissions have started hitting close – very close – to home.

Although not as severe as in other areas of the world, they’ve taken their toll, and wherever they hit, they damage the most vulnerable. Some 70,000 people died across the region because of the 2003 heatwave – mostly babies, older people and people with heart conditions.

The picture of climate impacts is varied: forest fires in Greece and Portugal, massive floods in Central Europe, Spain’s second lowest summer rainfall in 60 years, and UK’s wettest winter since records began 250 years ago – with floods and storms affecting large parts of the country and damaging homes, communities, and livelihoods.

The last winter has cost small businesses in flood-stricken areas £831 million, with poorest areas of England 3.5 times more vulnerable to flooding than the country’s most affluent neighborhoods, research suggested.

People like Adrian Tait of Athelney, in the Somerset Levels area, are among those having witnessed the destruction climate-charged floods have brought to the country, and gives a stark reminder of the political backdrop to the latest events:

Somerset’s inland sea can seem beautiful, though not to those whose houses, land and roads have been inundated. As the water is pumped away and the fields begin to dry out, we begin to get wafts from the rotting vegetation, reminders of the stench which hit us after the flood of Summer 2012. There is an obvious parallel with the stink of political and economic business as usual.

 

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