Perhaps more shocking than the deadly floods that continue to ravage parts of Europe is that local residents were caught completely unawares, despite predictions from advanced weather-tracking systems days before.
The sad reality is that many of the deaths in Germany and Belgium were surely preventable. They were not the result solely of the floods, but also of the “monumental failure of the system” to respond to them. In Germany, the richest country in Europe, where were the alarm bells, the urgency, the action?
Stories of piecemeal and inadequate systems predominate – digital communication tools that broke down as phone signals cut out, delayed evacuations, local authorities surprised by the speed of the flood, siren systems neglected since the end of the Cold War. But what use are 150 notifications sent out by the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance if they do not result in coordinated, timely action on the ground? Or a warning app that no one downloads? A picture emerges of a disaster-response system operating without engagement and consultation with ordinary citizens.
As the confirmed death count rises, investigations into what went wrong, and what can be learned must follow. Comparisons will be made with last week’s deadly flooding in China’s Henan province and the flash floods in London and south-east England, which caused tube stations and hospitals to close. What is clear is that the origins of these disasters lie long before the first signs of the flood were spotted by a satellite. Two wider issues lie behind this recent round of death and destruction, both of which go far beyond the flooded countries.
The first is our leaders’ failure to recognise that this is a crisis. While researchers have yet to analyse the factors that contributed to the catastrophe, climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. We have not halted the negative human impacts on the environment, which are driving a complex, dynamic process of environmental destabilisation – the age of environmental breakdown.
Our second failure is that we are not ready. We are not prepared for the current effects of environmental breakdown, never mind the unavoidable effects to come (even if damaging activity stopped tomorrow, and it won’t, feedback delays in natural systems mean we have yet to feel the results of today’s actions).
Timely action to preserve life before a natural disaster is not beyond the wit of woman – people around the world are practised in preparing their homes for hurricanes, for example. Indeed, readying an area for a discrete shock with localised impacts is one of the simplest in the suite of actions society must take to prepare for the age of environmental breakdown.
Much more complex to prepare for and respond to is the transmission of shocks through interlinked human systems – a food shock, say, that has worldwide implications of price rises and shortages – and the range of economic, social and geopolitical destabilisation that results.
It is not enough to say that the floods were unprecedented. Environmental breakdown is characterised by non-linear events, and so we must be prepared for things we haven’t seen before. The residents drowned in their cellars while collecting their belongings deserved better, as do those around the world for whom a destabilised climate is the new norm.
How, then, to prepare? As the century goes on, we will all, as ordinary citizens, be increasingly exposed to the impacts of environmental breakdown, vulnerable groups in particular. So we all need to be part of the solution. In the UK, beyond the obvious need for risk assessment, planning, coordination across departments and levels of government, we at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) argue for policymaking powered by people and communities.
The insights of people from all walks of life, living across the UK, sit at the heart of the recently launched final report of the IPPR Environmental Justice Commission, which has developed ideas and policies to bring about a rapid green transition that is fair and just. The commission’s recommendations were shaped by the experience, insights and priorities of the jurors of our four citizens’ juries held across the UK in 2020-21.
Our experience tells us that when you trust in people, create the space for personal stories to be shared and allow for thoughtful conclusions to be reached, the decisions you arrive at are better. Valuing public participation and facilitating passionate debates leads to decisions that are more likely to meet people’s needs and reflect their hopes for the future. Strong, empowered communities are essential to resilience in the age of environmental breakdown.
So far, the UK’s decarbonisation progress has come from ‘behind the scenes’ changes to energy generation and manufacturing processes, but now is the time to decarbonise ‘front of house’ industries that will impact people’s day to day lives. How we get to work, how we heat our homes, what we eat – making these nature- and climate-compatible will require meaningful public consultation.
For our jurors, it was often a revelation to see and hear the relationship between their local area and issues that they had heard about only in the abstract or in global news stories. Local speakers and ideas from within their own communities – from a community forest to sustainability hubs on an old bowling green – were particularly energising.
The public has a veto on climate and nature policy at the ballot box or in the streets. In France, the Gilets Jaunes demonstrated the risk of public resistance when policies do not account for social impacts. In the UK, there is anger at low-traffic neighbourhoods perceived to benefit the wealthiest over the poorest, despite the evidence of their positive impact within the most deprived neighbourhoods.
As flooding events like those seen in Germany, Belgium, China and London become ever more common, policymakers must not see people just as potential victims of the climate crisis. Instead, people must be seen as the heroes, rescuing and guiding each other out of the crisis and stewarding the planet for the next generation.
The communities we spoke to offered a vision of a better life for the future. They saw the potential in creating a fairer economy and society by taking rapid action now, and felt empowered by being part of the process. The recommendations of the commission are grounded in these communities’ optimistic, practical view on what could and should be possible if we make the right decisions before it’s too late.
Teaser photo credit: By Régine Fabri – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107637907