Torrents of water rushing down hillsides. Cars swept away in its path. Homes and businesses ruined.
Images more associated with devastating floods in Pakistan, or the aftermath or hurricanes in the southern US states. Yet they’re the scenes that have faced the Calder Valley 6 times in the last 5 years and look set to become even more common as we feel the effects of climate change only more. Calder Valley represents the dilemma facing communities globally – when the effects of climate change are felt on small communities, what do they really have the power to do?
The most devastating of the aforementioned floods, on Boxing Day 2015, left 50% of businesses to never reopen and hundreds living in the area unable to get insurance on homes, businesses and even their cars since – the chances of them being swept away all too high.
The area gained some level of fame in recent years; the backdrop to popular BBC drama programmes such as Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley. Yet the valley offers up its own drama in real life – a town on edge every time it rains, with an air raid siren repurposed as a flood warning system, echoing eerily for miles around.
It is also my hometown. Comprised of small towns and villages dotted along a valley, nestled between Leeds and Manchester, the hilly Pennines aren’t where you’d typically associate with devastating flooding. Perhaps it could act as the canary in the coalmine for the impact climate change will have on the UK – if it can hit there, it can hit anywhere.
The reality facing the communities there is an area left uninhabitable if the frequency of flooding continues; among the first victims of the effects of climate change in the UK. A ghost town within the near future, some in the town fear, as the cost of living with the constant renovations, lack of insurance cover and ever-present threat of inundation push even the most resilient out.
And they certainly are resilient – many have bounced back from floods several times, and local people prove only kinder each time in their offers of support. Coronavirus has made this worse of course – most businesses had only just reopened from February flooding before the national lockdown in March, while homes struggled to facilitate repairs, all while people lost their jobs and incomes. Many were not even eligible for furlough, as businesses were still closed from flooding on the cut-off date at the end of February – and so the vulnerable become more vulnerable.
Alongside local people, the local government has tried. Flood barriers have been built and sandbags provided, but it is simply not enough. The brand new, about-to-be-completed flood barriers were already breached in the most recent flooding event.
The problem lies partly in a battle between mitigation and adaptation. Locally only adaptation can be done, relying on wider mitigation efforts to (very literally) stem the flow. The council were among the first to declare a climate emergency, and have made steps to follow through with action.
Yet the Calder Valley represents a microcosm of the mitigation vs adaptation battle. At what point do you give up on mitigation to focus on adaptation? How can local councils or even national governments do anything other than adapt, when small scale mitigation alone will not solve the problem?
The couple of thousand people in the valley are relying on billions in the rest of the world cutting down on emissions. When they have reached the limit of what they can do to protect their livelihoods, they must trust in those more powerful to make the right moves. And this is repeated the world over – individuals relying on their governments and the world sacrificing their way of living to protect the way of living of others. Of course, many are even more vulnerable than those in the Calder Valley.
A BBC Panorama episode, aired in early December 2020, highlights how climate change looks set to hit the Calder Valley particularly hard, as it shows high emissions scenarios leading to the largest rainfall increases in the UK around the north-west of England. The owner of a restaurant muses on his future in the town, admitting he feels ‘tied in’ – with no buyers for his business as it cannot be insured.
While the Conservatives skirt around the edges of effective climate action, and the world hurtles towards breaking its Paris climate agreements; it’s local communities like Calder Valley who bear the brunt and have to struggle to adapt. The choice here is not mitigation vs adaptation, but rather adaptation vs abandonment.