David Welch david.welch at SPAMst-edmund-hall.oxford.ac.uk
Tue Nov 14 12:48:42 MST 2000

Weekly Worker 359 Thursday November 9

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
9^th and 10^th 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
Tom May

More information about the Marxism mailing list