Last Friday, a £120m flood alleviation scheme was announced. The project is due to transform at least five hectares to protect our town from future disastrous flooding, after major floods hit the city in 2007, 2012 and 2013/14.
This announcement comes after a year of disastrous global flooding: In South America, over 400 people were killed and many more injured by disastrous flooding, and in South Asia more than 41 million people were affected by a monsoon of a scale unseen in previous years. Floods are not just expected, unfortunate accidents. They are the deadly consequences of climate change, as has been confirmed in several studies, including one that analysed the latest Oxford flood.
As the seas warm in a world that is heating up they evaporate more easily, and as the air above them warms it holds more water vapour, making storms, floods and related crises ever-deadlier phenomena. The people affected worst are those living in the Global South, suffering from a crisis they did not cause and did not ask for.
But it is not just those far away from the UK that will suffer. Spending £120m is a difficult decision for any local government. That it has become necessary highlights the threat we are facing.
For many years, climate consequences were perceived as invisible problems that harmed those we treat as invisible, the poor and the voiceless. But the consequences are beginning to emerge.
The council’s decision to invest in the flood alleviation scheme is the right one. Arguably this money could be used even more effectively if it were focused on more widespread changes upstream that prevent such floods from assembling in the first place.
But preparing for the consequences of a self-made catastrophe is only the second-best option. We – in Oxford, and around the world – need to stop closing our eyes and start channelling our energy into where it is most needed: We can avoid the worst and at the same time improve the quality of life in communities around the world if we take positive action now, and if we do it quickly.
Various studies and expert bodies have shown that the emissions caused by the burning of dirty fossil fuels need to be decisively lowered over the next few years if we want to achieve a safe future.
Internationally, this requires fighting the monopoly power of those fossil fuel companies that refuse to transition into a renewable economy and creating incentives that reward necessary behaviour, such as carbon taxes, and investing into the research and development of the solutions we need.
This may be a global problem, but it does not mean that we can’t find local solutions. Change happens on the ground and in Oxford, there is reason for hope.
The City Council’s proposal to cut down on toxic air and emissions in the city centre by implementing a Zero Emissions Zone is an example for a clever policy choice that encourages future-proof behaviour. It can only be hoped that further such measures will be announced as part of Oxford’s 2050 vision.
The University, too, has a major role to play. It needs to commit to a full divestment, both directly and indirectly, from fossil fuel companies that are not ready for the future.
You probably think that the relationship between colleges and environmental policy is minor, based only on the annual election of an environment rep and the collection of recycling bins. This is not true.
Colleges still invest the money they get from students and alumni into fossil fuel companies, directly funding the world’s worst polluters. This practice that needs to stop as soon as possible.
Furthermore, the University and Colleges need to ensure the facilities we use are not wasting valuable energy by installing further insulation and ensuring that they are powered in the most sustainable way possible.
Lastly, faculties need to recognise their unique responsibility in educating students for a life in a world that is facing new major challenges and include issues of climate change in the curriculum of relevant courses.
One of the most common misconceptions about climate change is that it is a problem so vast, so much greater than us that we cannot begin to tackle it. We are implicitly told time and time again that we should focus on more manageable causes, causes closer to home.
The Oxford Flood Alleviation scheme reminds us that these problems are much closer to home than we think. It reminds us that despite the enormity of climate change we can begin to tackle it on a local level, that often, the solutions to global issues may be found locally.
Whether it is avoiding plastic packaging, changing to a renewable energy supplier (if you’re living out), choosing the train rather than the car or plane, or just engaging in this conversation about our common future: every one of us can make a difference, and we should act now so that we will be able to enjoy a safe future worth living.