Christoph, Covid, and Climate – caught between crises

Stay at home. Evacuate your home. These were the conflicting messages urged upon thousands of people in Manchester last night, as storm Christoph’s intense rainfall led to severe flood warnings. With knocks on the door from emergency services, residents in West and East Didsbury and Northenden were told that the Mersey could burst its banks and flood their homes, posing a danger to life.

For the most part it looks as though the worst projections did not come to pass. The river levels are coming down again, although severe flood warnings remain in place as of writing. Current evidence suggests this was a very close shave for the area: the river Mersey, at the highest level it has ever been, was only 2cm away from breaching its banks. Emergency flood defences were already used up. Other places have had severe flood warnings too and some have not escaped: homes have been flooded in Warrington, Wigan, Lymm and Bolton. Christoph has been hairy.

A dog finds the path by the Mersey submerged during storm Christoph.

The acute emergency of storm Christoph coincides with the ongoing crisis of Covid-19, which has also hit Manchester badly. Many shielding residents reportedly declined to evacuate when advised, because of the pandemic. What a decision to be forced to make: which risk to life do you take more seriously?

Between the pandemic and the floods, climate change remains a point of connection. There are links between habitat loss, climate change, and risks from novel zoonotic diseases like Covid-19. The links between climate change and increased flood risks for countries like the UK are also well known.

The whole country is projected to become wetter in the future. We can expect more intense rainfall events with huge amounts of water inundating river catchment areas in short amounts of time, especially in westerly parts of the UK – just like what happened with storm Christoph.

Studies of previous flood events in the UK have indicated that they were made more likely because of climate change. In a few years, perhaps the same will be said of this storm. And in a few decades, we must remember, downstream from Manchester, sea level rise could lead to coastal flooding and the submerging of large areas of Merseyside.

We have noticed that, in the immediacy of storm Christoph, not many people are talking about climate change. This is understandable, as the current worry is about personal safety and property damage. The emergency services are bravely reacting to the immediate threat. But where are our emergency services for the climate?

Manchester City Council, like many other local authorities, declared a climate emergency in 2019 and set targets to cut carbon emissions. But within just the last few years, a quarter of the remaining carbon budget for Manchester for the rest of the century has already been burned through. Through our scrutiny of the Council’s activities, we know that climate change is not being taken seriously. That is why we have been calling on the Council to set up a dedicated scrutiny committee on climate change. Over 1500 local citizens signed our petition in favour of that proposal on the Council’s website.

Storm Christoph reminds us that climate change is not just about reducing emissions: it is also about finding ways to adapt to the climate changes that are already baked in, such as through improved flood risk management. As the climate crisis deepens and its impacts become more evident, we believe our proposal for improved scrutiny of local climate governance is compelling. Councillors should ask themselves: if not this proposal now, then what else, and when? 

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