The Personal and Systemic Costs of Hidden Flood Risk

Following the recent floods in Ottawa, the CBC’s Neil MacDonald has put together an interesting piece:

I would never consider buying near the river nowadays, for obvious reasons, and my guess is the miserable residents on those sandbagged streets spend a lot of time contemplating both their home values and the next catastrophic flood. There have been two in the last three years. The Ottawa River surged past its banks weeks ago, and is still frighteningly swollen.

It never occurred to me, back in 2015, to check whether the home we tried to buy was at risk of flooding. Being near the river was a plus, not a threat. And even if I had checked, it probably wouldn’t have done much good. Flood plain maps in Canada are about 25 years out of date.

But that’s about to change. Next year, the federal government will begin uploading nearly 2,000 user-friendly flood plain maps, updating them with the most recent geospatial data. Eventually, entire communities will find themselves publicly identified as at-risk. What that will do to the value of their homes and their flood insurance premiums (assuming they can even get insurance), is obvious.

The article also features some discussion and estimates from Prof. Feltmate of the Intact [Insurance] Centre on Climate Adaptation.

Teaching the Future to Drive Change Today

A study published in Nature Climate Change last week asks whether teaching middle-school children can be done in a way that promotes engagement (and drives the views) of their parents:

“Because climate change perceptions in children seem less susceptible to the influence of worldview or political context, it may be possible for them to inspire adults towards higher levels of climate concern, and in turn, collective action. Child-to-parent intergenerational learning—that is, the transfer of knowledge, attitudes or behaviours from children to parents—may be a promising pathway to overcoming socio-ideological barriers to climate concern.”

The study was performed on families with middle-school students in North Carolina, and involved four lessons and a project, as summarised here:

“The first lesson taught the difference between weather and climate. The next was on how the environment relates to animals and where they live. The third looked at how people who work with wildlife can help the animals adapt to climate change, if they can do so. The fourth lesson focused on how an individual can directly affect the environment.[…] The students also did a climate change-focused service learning project, created a blog post about what they were learning and interviewed their parents about the topic.”

The results presented in the abstract suggest the strategy is effective at influencing:

“Parents of children in the treatment group expressed higher levels of climate change concern than parents in the control group. The effects were strongest among male parents and conservative parents, who, consistent with previous research, displayed the lowest levels of climate concern before the intervention. Daughters appeared to be especially effective in influencing parents. Our results suggest that intergenerational learning may overcome barriers to building climate concern.”

It should also be pointed out that promoting parental engagement is, in the modern era, a worthwhile outcome in and of itself.

But I think it is also reasonable and important to acknowledge that promoting some of these strategies is not without risk. We have learned that there’s no shortage of people, with all sorts of agendas, trying to hack social systems and institutions to exert influence today.

While better tools for broader education are desirable (and badly needed), too often these have also been to obfuscate and indoctrinate. So critical thinking skills, a credible evidence basis and opportunities for robust two-way discussions (i.e. embracing [real] debate, and bringing counterpoints back to the classroom) are all going to be keys to doing this in a responsible way.

Can Big Engineering Fix Climate Change?

David King, the Government’s former chief scientific adviser, is making the media rounds today (BBC, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail) talking about Cambridge’s planned Centre for Climate Repair which is going to investigate global scale geoengineering options to combat Climate Change.

The three examples technologies listed in most stories are ‘Ocean Spraying’, ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ and ‘Ocean Greening’. These are all ideas with some track record — I’ve dabbled on some parts of some of these problems before myself, and they feature regularly in my classes today (as indeed, they did when I taught at Cambridge’s Centre for Sustainable Development). So I’m certainly interested in hearing about new developments on these or similar ‘big engineering’ approaches.

Of the three, I’m particularly interested in the ‘Ocean Greening’, which involves seeding the oceans with the limiting nutrient — typically iron in ” “high nutrient/low chlorophyll” (HNLC) zones. The BBC article has a nice graphic:

Like the other ideas, this proposal is by no means new (here’s a popular article from ~20 years ago proposing the same thing) but that in and of itself doesn’t mean it is a bad thing to be looking at — far from it! And I appreciate that the focus of the Centre here is on “radical solutions” to try and remedy a serious threat associated with atmospheric CO2. I don’t believe the intention is to suggest these things would be desirable interventions on their own with all other things being equal.

But we are still talking about a global intervention, and one with, by design, global effects. It’s worth then, being concerned that we not substitute one form of “dangerous and irreversible damage to the planet” with another. Rarely discussed in popular articles however, is how close the Ocean Greening proposal is to what is generally considered to be a very bad thing: Eutrophication. The Ocean Greening proposal as presented is basically an intervention to actively promote eutrophication of the oceans. So this is the kind of tradeoff that may need to be considered.

I think this makes the proposed Centre’s mandate more (not less) important and exciting, and would love to see some of these points in the coverage of it.

Environment Agency Consultation on Flooding Opens

The EA has today begun consultation on its latest draft strategy for flooding and coastal erosion. The development and application of this is one of the EA duties under the Flood and Water Management Act of 2010.

If you have a view on the draft strategy, you can respond online here.

Other possibly relevant reading:

  • The Pitt Review of 2008 (read the Foreword and Executive Summary first).
  • The Government’s “Final Progress Report” of 2012 responding to the Pitt Report (check the Status on page 7 first)
  • The National Infrastructure Assessment of July 2018. (read Chapter 5 first)
  • If you’re wondering how we can possibly need to deal with not enough water (e.g. droughts) and too much water (i.e. floods) at the same time, a good starting point is the Government’s Future Water Strategy from 2008.

Also consider getting a copy of my recent book.

New Book Announcement: Urban Stormwater and Flood Management

I am pleased to announce the new book “Urban Stormwater and Flood Management: Enhancing the Liveability of Cities“.

This book brings together the experiences of engineers and scientists from Australia and the United Kingdom providing the current status on the management of stormwater and flooding in urban areas and suggesting ways forward. It forms a basis for the development of a framework for the implementation of integrated and optimised storm water management strategies and aims to mitigate the adverse impacts of the expanding urban water footprint. Among other topics it also features management styles of stormwater and flooding and describes biodiversity and ecosystem services in relation to the management of stormwater and the mitigation of floods. Furthermore, it places an emphasis on sustainable storm water management measures.

Population growth, urbanisation and climate change will pose significant challenges to engineers, scientists, medical practitioners, policy makers and practitioners of several other disciplines. If we consider environmental and water engineers, they will have to face challenges in designing smart and efficient water systems which are robust and resilient to overcome shrinking green spaces, increased urban heat islands, damages to natural waterways due to flooding caused by increased stormwater flow. This work provides valuable information for practitioners and students at both senior undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

The book is part of the Springer series ‘Applied Environmental Science and Engineering for a Sustainable Future’. You can pre-order it now on Amazon (or try the UK, Australian or Canadian sites).