We’re just about done with possibly the hottest December on record, with heat waves across the northern hemisphere. Simultaneously, there is record flooding in England and Ireland, and huge fires across northern Spain, where I live; seemingly unconnected, but not really.
Both phenomena are either caused by or exacerbated by bad laws.
Today in my email inbox are two mails. One is my automatic notification of George Monbiot’s Guardian article about the predictions of flooding in York because of the actions of farmers (grouse farmers, to be sure) in the watershed upstream, burning and draining peatlands so they don’t hold rainwater as well as they should.
Flooding in Athlone. Photograph: Harry McGee, from Irish Times
The other email is a request to sign a petition to change the new Spanish law, which means people get rich by burning land. 50,000 hectares have burned so far, and most fires have been set on purpose. Forests which have been burned can now be rezoned for building, making a tidy profit for anyone who invests in a forest and a few gallons of petrol.
It seems amazing that we can have such stupid laws when we are faced with such grave global problems. In Ireland, in fact, the minister responsible for environment will change the law to allow field and hedge burning even later than before, in response to the problem of illegal fire setting last spring. Mind boggling, even if we discount the fact that the birds the law is there to protect are breeding even earlier as the climate warms.
Yet, when I talked to a farmer I know about the article I wrote about the illegal fires, she told me she doesn’t get paid for having gorse on her land, so not being able to burn was losing her money – though to date I haven’t seen her burn the patches she has.
Just as we can’t blame corporations for putting their shareholders ahead of the wellbeing of their customers and workers, since the law obliges them to do so, we can’t blame farmers from trying to get the money the law says they are entitled to, as long as their fields are in “agricultural condition.”
Some farmers I know here in Spain are actively digging trenches and putting in plastic drains under fields in far from the wettest part of the world by any stretch of the imagination. These fields have been farmed for centuries, but nowadays the machinery is so heavy it can only be used on dry soil. The state subsidies for starting farmers stipulates that the five-year plan have such modern machinery to be efficient, so staying out of muddy fields after a rain is not an option. And never mind that the water not held in the fields just goes faster to the Ebro, a river notorious for flooding, and which flows through large cities like Logroño and Zaragoza. A whole pig farm was swept away last year, and farmers are asking the river be dredged so the water can flow faster away from them. Which is counterproductive, we know. But farmers are paid to farm, not to mange the environment in a sensible manner. Or to protect other people’s homes from flooding and wildfires.
In Ireland, the town of Athlone on the Shannon is hoping the river won’t inundate it, while politicians suggest paying people to move out of floodplains that should never have been built on in the first place. At the same time, some locals say they never had a flood in 75 years until trees were cut down on the local mountains.
The rules are more than faulty. They’re stupid. Except for those they benefit, of course. Big landowners are making millions off them.
The politicians have thus far, even including the recent Paris agreement, decided it’s supposedly less damaging to their precious economy to deal with the consequences of climate change rather than prevent it.
This is a test of their ideas.
The warming climate will bring much more such fires and floods.
Building flood defences is all well and good, but it’s more wasted money dealing with consequences rather than wisely trying to prevent them. Forests and bogs can absorb a lot of the water destroyed homes from the recent storms, if they aren’t burnt to the ground.
As Monbiot said, flooding fields or towns: which is it going to be?
Common sense says the former, of course. Let’s see if anyone in power got some for Christmas.