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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | 'York could be UK's New Orleans'

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | 'York could be UK's New Orleans': "'York could be UK's New Orleans'

Matthew Tempest, political correspondent, in Lancaster
Thursday September 8, 2005

The city of York could be Britain's New Orleans if climate change weather patterns continue as predicted, the Green party warned tonight, as it launched its annual conference in Lancaster.

Delivering the opening speech of the four-day gathering - the first of the autumn season - Professor John Whitelegg, a Green councillor and academic said that York could become uninhabitable in the near future, whether or not action was taken immediately on climate change.

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Prof Whitelegg, a professor of sustainable development at the Stockholm Environment Institute, which is based at York University, warned the city - which suffered severe flooding in 2000 - would be dependent on its post-flood plans, rather than action to prevent another disaster.

Citing a meeting with Meteorological Office experts, he warned that the worst-case scenario would include the abandonment of the city.

He said: 'We need to plan for the abandonment of York. York is not tenable. It will flood, and flood irreparably, and there will be loss of life.'

Speaking after the address, he said it would be impossible to put a figure on any possible loss of life, as that would depend on emergency preparations by local authorities.

York, and much of low-lying eastern England is highly susceptible to flooding. Prof Whitelegg warned that a repeat of the disastrous 1953 floods, which killed around 300 people in Britain and more than 3,000 in the Netherlands, was all but inevitable.

He said: 'The North Sea acts like a funnel, or egg timer, if you look at the drainage through the narrow English channel at the bottom.

'More extreme weather, such a high tides, strong winds and storms, push down on the area, and the only way out [for the water] is into East Anglia and the Netherlands.'

Referring back to Hurrican Katrina, and the devastation brought to the USA's Gulf coast, he told an audience of around 200 delegates on the opening day of the conference: 'Seeing dead bodies float by in a toxic soup in the world's greatest superpower is a telling reminder that 50 years of economic growth has not provided a just or sustainable society.'

He pointed out that three days before Hurricane Katrina struck he had publicly warned that America could not avoid the repercussions of global warming, despite refusing to sign up to the Kyoto protocol.

On August 26, three days before the hurricane, Prof Whitelegg had put out a press release saying: 'The USA is at more risk than many countries. It is subject to extreme weather events and its people will pay the price of hurricanes.'

He added: 'We can put climate change right - if we don't, similar things will happen in Britain.'

The city of York's website publishes the council's policy statement on flood and coastal defence. According to that document: 'The council currently has no major capital work planned for flood alleviation works in its area.'

It warns residents to heed Environment Agency flood warnings, but adds: 'The council is satisfied that there are minimal risks to human life created by these flood risks.'

Prof Whitelegg's message set an apocalyptic tone for the conference, which will see speeches on the so-called peak oil theory of oil production, which holds that, whilst oil fields remain, the cost of retrieval will soon outweigh tenable commercial prices at the pump.

Other topics up for discussion are the situation in West Papua, the role of local businesses in the local economy and electoral reform in the light of the Greens' failure to make a Westminster breakthrough at the May 5 general elections.

There will also be a vote on changing the party structure to create the Greens' first ever leader and deputy leader, and emergency motions criticising the government's legislative response to the London bombings in July."

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