Britons are normally never more comfortable than when talking about the weather, but recent extreme weather events have began to test that theory. Since December, the U.K. has faced a relentless assault from some of the worst winter weather on record. It began with the worst storm and tidal surges in 60 years hitting the North Sea coastline, floods that ruined Christmas for thousands across Surrey and Dorset and in January, the most exceptional period of rainfall since 1766. The deluge has transformed swathes of southern England into cold, dark lakes, destroying homes and businesses, and in some cases taking lives.
Politicians have looked weak in the face of such natural disaster, with many facing criticism from local residents for doing little more than turning up as “flood tourists” at the site of disasters, incapable of helping those in crisis and only there for a photo opportunity. The Environment Agency, the body responsible for combating floods and managing rivers, has also been blamed for failing to curb the disasters. But there’s an ever larger debate over the role of climate change in the current floods and storms, and it has been unremittingly hostile, with bitter disagreement within the government itself.
The U.K.’s Met Office, the country’s national weather service, issued a report on the recent climatic events, linking it to the cold weather in Canada and the U.S. The report indicated that “as yet, there is no definitive answer on the possible contribution of climate change” to these events, in part because of how varied the U.K. weather tends to be. “But all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change,” said Dame Julia Slingo, the Met Office’s chief scientists. “There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.” When heavy rain in 2000 devastated parts of Britain, a later study found the climate change had doubled the chances of the flood occurring.
The former Conservative party Chancellor Lord Lawson dismissed her comments as “absurd” for drawing a link between the floods and climate change. “There’s been bad weather before,” said Lawson. And Eric Pickles, a senior Conservative government minister, told the BBC that “it does not matter if it is climate change,” that caused the floods—the government would still have to deal with the situation.
Others in government disagree. “This type of climate change denying conservatism is willfully ignorant, head in the sand, nimbyist conservatism,” said Ed Davey, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, in a speech on Feb. 13. For his part, Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that he “very much suspects” that flooding was linked to climate change. Davey’s colleague in the Department for Energy and Climate Change, Greg Barker, told TIME that while it was “bad science” to draw a parallel between one weather event and climate change, “it is highly likely we will see more extreme weather events as the earth warms up.”
For those affected by flooding however, their immediate concerns are not necessarily about the manmade changes to the earth’s atmosphere. A YouGov poll from February found that while 84% of those surveyed believed Britain was likely to experience similar extreme weather events in the next few years, only 30% thought it was connected to man-made climate change. Responding to Pickle’s comments that climate change was irrelevant to the issue of flooding, Barker said, “In the short term, what people affected by flooding want to know is that there is effective relief effort in hand. If your property is under water, if your access to transport is impaired, then you want effective relief.” But this doesn’t mean that the public isn’t willing to “think again about the long term impacts of climate change,” added Barker.
What will it take for politicians to take more decisive action on climate change, asks Nicholas Dunlop, the Secretary-General of the Climate Parliament, an international network of legislators dedicated to preventing climate change. Dunlop describes the U.K.’s flood crisis as “the opening scene in a really bad play.” The “storm factory” over the North Atlantic that meteorologists say is about to send more harsh winter weather Britain’s way means that for many, the flood crisis is only set to deepen.