Floods in a changing climate: Understanding the role of crisis in policy change
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Presentation given by Dr Catherine Butler entitled ‘Floods in a changing climate: Understanding the role of crisis in policy change’. Given at the European Sociological Association Conference, Prague, 2015.
Floods in a changing climate: Understanding the role of crisis in policy change
1. Floods in a changing
role of crisis in policy
Dr Catherine Butler and
Dr Kate Walker-Springett
• Major UK floods; 1947; 1952/3; 1973; 1998; 2000; 2004;
2007; 2012; 2013/14
• At risk: 5.2 million homes
• Cost: £1.1 billion / €1.54 billion annually in flood
£2.34 billion/ €3.26 billion 2011 – 2015 on flood
and coastal defense
• UK climate projections - increased flood events
3. 2013/14 Winter Floods and Change
• Previous research has theorised that events offer opportunity for
change (Kingdon, 1995; Baumgartner and Jones, 1993) as
assemblages of publics, knowledge and politics are brought into
• Flood events have been identified as catalysts for the
transformation of environmental policy and human behaviour
(Johnson et al. 2004; 2005; Spence et al. 2011)
• How do the dynamic processes of reframing that occur in the
immediate aftermath of flood events determine the extent of
change and continuity in public policy and FRM practice? And what
are the implications over the longer-term?
4. Resilience and Adaptive Capacity
“The concept of adaptive capacity remains
contested, but can be broadly defined as the
ability of individuals, communities,
organizations, nations and other actors to adapt
to the current and likely future effects of
changes in the global climate” (Williams et al.
5. Resilience, Adaptation and Justice
• Publics are deeply implicated in the development and deployment
of adaptation strategies – citizens/voting; regulation; private scale
adaptations (Adger, 2008; Klinsky et al. 2012)
• Evidence of existing public conflict around proposed adaptation
strategies (e.g. Butler and Pidgeon, 2011)
• Vital to engage with publics on adaptation as they ‘may bring novel
information or perspectives into the discussion’ (Klinsky et al., 2012:
863 - Wynne, 1992; Leach et al. 2005).
• Importance of engagement with a wider set of framings for
delivering adaptation outcomes that are ‘just’ (Adger et al. 2011;
Leach et al. 2011)
6. In-depth longitudinal research – Somerset case study
Semi-structured interviews with flood affected public (n=36 x 2),
flood professionals (n=28 x 2), August 2014 - May 2015
Survey of flooded areas – Somerset and Boston
Photo: Matilda Temperley
10. Institutional Problem Framings
“So if you’re looking for the causes of the floods, the cause of
the flood was that it rained a lot. Simply that.”
SH1 Conservation Organisation
“. . really high rainfall event like we had this winter, the rivers,
there’s no way they can take that volume of water”
SH3 National Government
That area floods every year anyway, it’s just that it flooded to a
greater extent because there was more rain. “
SH2 Engineering Consultancy
11. Public Problem Framings
“So this time of year … you would see large tractors and
dredging machines cleaning all the rhyne system out, which
meant the water could get away to at least the pumping station
... That ceased about 15 years ago and most of the ditches are
overgrown and not really cleaned out very much, and the
Department of Environment just kind of crossed them off their
list, I think.” P1
“This land has been managed since Roman times, and since the
founding the inauguration or whatever it is of the Environment
Agency, it's just stopped. Nobody voted for it being stopped, it
was very undemocratic.” P5
12. “Farming has changed and I think there is a cry that with the
change from grass, which is a binding nature for the soil, to
crops, then when the rain comes, the earth will flow off much
quicker and much easier and therefore more management will
be needed.” P2
Public Problem Framing
It was a lot of rain, it did feel like it rained the whole of winter,
it was particularly wet” P3
13. Social Divisions
The Somerset Levels and Moors has been a bit of a battleground between
environmentalists and the landowning and draining community – and peat
extraction as well – so it’s been one of the most difficult areas in the
SH1 Conservation Organisation
“I became quite fascinated by the different polls of opinion between say like
the scientists who’d done river flow assessments, compared with local
people whose the land had been in the family for generations and people
saying, “this house has never flooded in 100 years and now it’s flooded”, you
think surely that has to say something, even if people are using the land
badly or if things are in wrong in how people are using the land, it still tells
you something if it hasn’t flooded for 100 years and now it’s flooded’ P5
15. Social and Political Action
“But I have to say, I mustn’t forget, the EA and the IDB have been
down here putting a bund in, absolutely fantastic job. I went
down there and there was a feeling welling up, “Yes, this is going
to work.” P6
“I think it’s good now that they’ve brought back the idea of the
kind of inland water management group and engaging more
with people here in the community as well as those agencies
because I think local knowledge is really important.” P7
16. Governance Processes
“[the Environment Agency] with the community and probably
with the council and other partners, would draw up a plan for
how that flooding would be tackled or how that defence would
be built and it would be done kind of as a partnership of those
SH5 Government Body
17. Final Thoughts
• Informal and formal processes of civic
engagement and resource allocation
– Potential for perpetuation of existing
• Flood events provide opening for civic
engagement but can obscure more
• Social contracts and underlying
expectations (Rawls, 1971; O’Brien et al.
2009; Adger et al. 2012)
Catherine Butler – University of Exeter - going to talk today about one of my ongoing projects which is examining the processes of social and political response to flooding in the aftermath of a major event – that being the 2013/14 winter floods.
This work is funded by ESRC and National Institute for Health Research and just to mention my colleagues on this project – particularly Kate Walker-Springett – but also the rest of the team at Exeter Neil Adger, Saffron O’Neil and Louisa Evans who are collaborators on the research.
Climate change brings imperatives to transition societies in ways that are both consistent with mitigation targets and responsive to socio-environmental impacts associated with increases in global temperature. Governmental policy and related forms of socio-political action are likely to play a major part in achieving the necessary transformations and resilience across broad spectrums of social life. In this context, there arise an important set of questions around how policy change occurs and what its role might be in such processes. Previous theory and research (e.g. see Kingdon, 1995; Johnson et al. 2004) has pointed to the importance of socio-environmental crises in creating windows of opportunity for policy change. Taking the UK’s 2013/14 winter floods as a case study, this paper will examine how governmental policy and collective responses involving multiple actors are unfolding in the aftermath of the floods, and the implications this has for longer-term climate adaptation and wider processes of transformation. The paper uses insights derived from interviews with members of the public affected by the floods and stakeholders with professional roles related to flooding and climate change, to re-examine existing political and social theory on policy change. Insights into the processes of policy and wider socio-political change following these major floods are presented and implications for the long-term transformations likely to be necessary for climate adaptation are discussed.
Just to very briefly give a bit of background to the UK context and the project – we’ve had several major flood events in recent year with five of the nine most significant flood events occurring since 2000; and UK climate projections indicate that we can expect to see increases in flooding into the future at significant cost. So flooding major issue – and it’s not just a technical problem it is an inherently social and political one too… particularly when it comes to questions about the response to flooding
So the background context - the project builds from the observation that major crises offer windows of opportunity for change (Kingdon, 1995; Baumgartner and Jones, 1993) with environmental events such as major floods being identified in previous analyses as catalysts for the transformation of environmental policy and human behaviour (Johnson et al. 2004; 2005; Spence et al. 2011). So we’ve seen changes in flood policy historically following major events (e.g. Making Space for Water post 1998-2000 floods or Pitt Review and Flood and Water Management Act post 2007). And in previous research though there has been a focus on change in many analyses of the responses to major events, why continuities persist is less well understood - So, the questions this project seeks to address are:
How the processes of framing and reframing problems and solutions that occur in the aftermath of events determine the extent of change and/or continuity AND what this means over the longer term for public policy and practice. Crucially we’re are aiming to see what can we understand from the periods of response about the implications over the longer term.
So, today I am just going to give a flavour of some very initial findings, as we are still at the data collection phase and have not yet started analysed the data but I will aim to offer some early thoughts into one aspect of this bigger question concerning the ways that response we’ve seen relate to questions about improving resilience and climate adaptation more widely.
So just to say a little bit about resilience and adaptation –and locate these concepts in relation to literature around adaptive capacity and local resilience, in particular, as being an important factor in adaptation processes – but as also being connected to action at different scales – so this quote from a recent paper in Nature Climate Change highlights the this interaction across scales…
So central to this adaptive capacity then are a set of concerns about justice and who has capacity to respond and what are the conditions (wider factors) that can engender OR militate against this– in this regard attention has been given to the importance of engaging with publics and local citizens for multiple reasons – so publics are implicated in the development of adaptation strategies, there have been conflicts around local adaptation processes e.g. resettlement, flood risk management, nature conservation) indicating a need to find ways of addressing social divisions – and more broadly publics offer distinctive perspectives so they bring a wider range of viewpoints and can offer novel information into the discussion.
This had led to calls for engagement of local communities and inclusion of a wider set of framings of problem and solutions in order to achieve better outcomes both in terms of adaptation but also more specifically in terms of justice… there has however to date been only limited empirical research that has sought to unpack questions of problem and solution framing – or how different perspectives interact and affect outcomes- in particular contexts…
So for this talk, I am going to focus on how members of the flood affected public and different stakeholder groups frame the issues surrounding the causes and solutions of flooding in the UK and offer some reflections in concluding on what this might mean for adaptation and justice.
So, just to give some details of what we have been doing:
In-depth intensive longitudinal research that takes Somerset as a case study within the national context – where there was prolonged flooding spanning the months December 2013 – March 2014 with some people having water in their homes for up to four weeks or more – an estimated 200-250 homes were flooded as well as large areas of agricultural land, infrastructure (roads, train network), and other businesses.
Semi-structured interviews with flood affected publics sampled flood affected people across different badly affected villages and homes within Somerset Levels and Moors (focus on covering different forms of experience, as well as demographics and social characteristics) and flood professionals (both national and regional – EA, Defra, Committee on CC, SCC, Districts, IDBs, RSPB, CIWEM),
Survey is planned (in design at present) to be explore some of the things coming out of the qualitative work across a wider sample of people and across another area - explore potential differences between flooded areas (likely to be Boston, Lincolnshire) – so we’re in the throws of the research rather than having reached the analytic stage but for this talk today I’m going to talk through some of the initial data and our early thoughts on these questions about social divisions and contestation in FRM….
First I’m just going to say a bit about Somerset and the flood risk management landscape in the UK, to situate the ideas I want to explore today
So, just to give an idea of flood risk in Somerset, Somerset is a county in SW England and was historically known as the land of the summer people because Somerset was only inhabitable during the summer months, indicating its vulnerability to flooding especially since parts of this area are below sea level, The woodblock image at the top depicts the great flood of 1607 where hundreds of people died. the advent of the steam engine and installation of the network of pumps and drainage channels, major flood events like the 1607 are infrequent. Despite draining, this area is liable to flood, and during wet winters, it is not unusual for the moors to be underwater, as in the bottom picture, but just to stress that this is land that is flooded and flooding of property’s less frequent
In terms of the demographics of Somerset, Just over half a million resident in Somerset, main economy are agriculture, tourism and manufacturing and the Somerset economy worth over 9 billion
Wasn’t sure of the audience make-up for today but just in case we have anyone not familiar with this – In the winter of 2013/14 the UK saw high levels rainfall- it was the wettest winter since records began in 1766 and there were more days of rain during this winter than since 1961. This affected many parts of the UK with 12 major winter storms came across the country – but we are using Somerset as a case study within a national context.
The image on the LHS shows the rainfall for the winter period as a percentage of the average, the darker the blue, the higher the level of rainfall in comparison to the average and it clearly shows that the southwest of the UK experienced much higher than average rainfall, approximately 175 – 200% more than the average. The image on the RHS shows the extent of the flooded areas in Somerset, some of which remained flooded for around 3 months.
There is no doubt that these were a really extreme events, however, this is set against a backdrop of reduced funding in a political context of austerity where resources had been cut…
Just to give some background information on governance in the context of FRM in the UK – again probably don’t need to go into as much detail for this audience?
Complex institutional landscape, with lots of bodies having some form of responsibility for flood risk management - At a strategic level, the EA is responsible for providing government with an overview of UK flood risk, and alongside many partners has operational responsibility for large rivers, estuaries and the coastline. But the EA have to operate within the rules set by DEFRA and the Treasury to determine flood defense funding, And this is evaluated in terms of cost/benefit analysis and risk assessment. Social issues come in later, but have to pass cost/benefit analysis first. Local authorities, here I have just given some examples from our case study site of Somerset, have the responsibility for managing flood risk from surface water and run-off. Water companies, for example Southern Water, have a duty to manage flood risk to water supplies and sewerage, and the highways agency has a responsibility to maintain highways drainage and road ditches, and the internal drainage boards which are only present in low lying areas of the UK and are responsibility for water levels in their region. Finally, in the UK, it is private insurance companies that pay the cost of the damage to flood victims houses.
So I’m going to move now to talk through some of our data and give some insight into how members of the flood affected public and different stakeholder groups frame the issues surrounding the causes and solutions of flooding in the UK and offer some reflections in concluding on what this might mean for adaptation and justice.
So first to look a the different problem framings and to compare those framing from institutional perspectives and from the publics. In terms of framings form our stakeholder cohort, the dominant frame relates to the extreme rainfall, both duration and quantity that occurred during the 2013/14 winter period. This frame is consistent across actors from different institutions with different backgrounds.
In contrast, the dominant discourse from the public cohort, that in different ways related to institutional failure to undertake the necessary works to maintain the area. In the top quote, the participant is speaking about the cessation of river maintenance about 15 years ago as the cause of the recent flood events, citing overgrown ditches and no where for the water to go as reason. The second quote is in the same vein, speaking to the necessity for on-going management of the landscape which has been managed for many years, and that again, it was the lack of maintenance that is the reason behind the floods.
Again here we see further example of frames that are about the failings of different institutional actors in this case farming practices, particularly in the upper catchment.
Again as with our stakeholder group this isn’t to say that other framings weren’t apparent but they also talked about rainfall as a cause, but a much greater emphasis of the failings of particular actors or groups - and this alludes to a set of expectations that had not been met, and perhaps expectations which were not reflected in institutional responsibilities. This stands in contrast to the institutional discourses that we saw which were emphasizing the extreme nature of the event and the major work they do across the UK to resist and limit the damaging effects of flooding, in a context of funding constraints.
Different understandings of the problem of course connect centrally to how people see the solutions - So in this respect these different framings of the problem and causes contribute to (and in part underlay) the emergence of major social divisions that we saw in the aftermath of the 2013/14 flooding. And we want to argue it’s important to understand these differences in expectations and motivations to underpin a perhaps needed reconstituted social contract with the public around flooding responses and responsibilties.
We saw major social divisions both within and between affected publics and actors with institutional responsibilities for FRM, highlighted in the top quote here. Our research can in part help to explain why these divisions occurred and as we move forward with the research we’ll be using that to try to build understanding of how they might be addressed or lessened in future. (but we have have also observed division within and between community’s.)
2nd Quote - In part about knowledge – explored in other research and focus of a lot of the social analysis following the floods - but centrally this we want to argue that it perhaps more fundamentally about these differing views on responsibility and expectations with regards to protection and the wider response to flooding… (Whatmore et al)
So actually while the different framings of the issues are many senses really quite nuanced – this over-riding sense of institutional failure saw a public bought into being, that achieved a significant media presence that as far as the outside world was concerned was the voice of the public/people in Somerset
This dominant public voice that emerged was a campaign for dredging the rivers in Somerset, which was STOP THE FLOODING DREDGE THE RIVERS as you can see in the logo here.
And this became the focus of a media campaign – starting in social media then subsequently attracted a lot of attention from the mainstream media, key political figures, (Owen Paterson secretary of state for Defra), key establishment figures, such as Prince Charles who visited and brought national significance to the campaign heightened the mainstream media attention. But the response to this was one at odds with, rather than empathetic to the viewpoints and feelings of flood affected residents.
The significance of the media as a form of communication arguably meant that the terms of the debate were somewhat narrowed during and in the period following the following perpetuating and further exacerbating existing underlying divisions.
Crucially, all this attention allowed this community to leverage action and funding to the tune of 20.5 million pounds that they would, never have been allocated through exiting mechanism on the UK for funding flood defense work.
It’s significant to note that this was a response not only to an environmental disaster but to a political problem - these events occurred in a pre-election year, with a Conservative government that has just been re-elected and this is a Conservative stronghold.
So people had been able to achieve action and get their voices heard and their interests represented BUT this was through a largely informal divisive campaign with the media as a key conduit of communication - it’s important to note that many people within institutions and in other regions of the UK were unhappy about what happened, arguing that this money could have gone to area that needed it more.
As time has moved on, however, increases and improvements in dialogue and community involvement, along with moves toward a newly localised form of governance have been regarded more positively. there is less anger and reduced conflict \Voice heard, interests represented
And this contrasts with the more formal processes of engagement that are used to determine the type of flood risk management actions that would be undertaken, so here someone from the EA is speaking about community engagement and partnership working. In the aftermath of the flood event, however, this more defined process was completely thrown out of the window, as processes of dialogue broke down...
So what can we say about all of this – well the issues that were thrown up in the aftermath of these floods are not resolved and not unique – we’ve seen similar intense conflicts in the aftermath of other flood events and the shock waves of the 2013/14 floods are still reverberating… we are in the midst of doing the research, so this is not complete analysis, but I wanted to offer a few reflections, about what I think we can explore about the implication for thinking about longer term FRM and adaptation, and justice issues, drawing on the literature I spoke about earlier, and bringing together some of the themes I have already mentioned.
So, thinking about longer term adaptation and justice, the first thing is to say is that we can see in this context there are both informal and formal processes of civic and community engagement, the formal process that I mentioned earlier related to allocation of resources from cost benefit analysis and processes of dialogue between communities and agencies, but this research point to informal processes through which people can subvert the system and attract resources. One possible implication of this concerns justice outcomes – because subverting the system in this way potentially requires social capital - there are people in this area we’re looking at that are relatively affluent, had access to individuals in position of power and they were able to mobilize those resources to achieve their aims – now this obviously is not the case for everybody, so through these informal process there’s the possibility for existing structural inequalities to be perpetuated – but at the very least these processes of funding allocation are even more opaque than formalized structures – so there are a set of questions for me yet to be addressed about funding and forms of response for those communities at high risk but that do not pass c/s analysis assessments – this being addressed in the aftermath of events is perhaps problematic as a longer-term response…
The second point relates to longer term adaptation, Floods events from the research do seem to provide openings for diverse and wider groups of people to emerge and to engage with issues, but what we saw in this case was one dominant voice emerging which might have been an example of people being media savvy and focusing their campaign on a simple message, or the conduit, ie the media, being a blunt instrument as a form of communication, but what we do know form the research is that the nuances of debate, the diversity of the views and framing that we are finding and could form the basis for a improved dialogue about FRM were not and still are not fully represented in wider public discourse about the responses.
Finally, I wanted to say something about the relationships between governmental institutions and members of the public – so drawing on the concept of social contracts – which refers to a real or implicit compact between a citizens and the state that defines the rights and responsibilities of these groups to each other - Contracts legitimate and constrain government authority, and secure protections for citizens when risks change - Constantly renegotiated, possibly through perturbations (pay taxes-protection from certain risks – choose whether or not subject to them) - From the looking at the different framings that we are finding across those affected and professionals we can understand something about the underlying social contract between government and publics and see that there are clear expectations that actually aren’t reflected in institutional responsibilities - so this is something we’ll be exploring further to understand the foundations of that and what it means but perhaps as an initial reflection there is still a need to think more about what really resilience means as a response to floods because it has to go beyond reparation after a flood (through insurance) and be embedded with a sense of how people and institutions can be enabled to maintain system function even while experiencing floods…
I think that this has implications for notions of adaptive justice, as normal processes were subverted and was not proper com engagement, many people within institutions and in other regions of the UK were unhappy about this, arguing that this money could have gone to area that needed it more.
Thanks for listening