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Record-Breaking Rainfall And UK Floods Are A Result Of Climate Change, Say Scientists

The researchers also criticised the government for cutting flood defences in the face of warnings about the effect of global warming, which has made the situation worse.

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A group of top scientists has said that there is a direct link between climate change and the recent devastating UK floods, as the Met Office revealed how the extraordinary December weather has smashed records.

This month has been the warmest December ever recorded in Britain. The average temperature across the UK has been 8°C, shattering the previous record of 6.9°C set in 1934 and more than 4°C above the long-term average for the month, according to the Met Office.

It's also the second-wettest December in the UK since records began – and the single wettest month in Scotland and the north of England.

As Scotland and the north of England began cleaning up after Storm Frank dropped a month's rainfall in 24 hours, leading academics warned that the unprecedented rain is the result of climate change – and that we can expect more in future.

Speaking to the Science Media Centre, several climate scientists warned that increased rainfall is the inevitable result of a warmer atmosphere.

"The weather has changed, and we have changed it," said Prof Myles Allan, a climatic physicist from the University of Oxford.

The climate is now changing so rapidly that the idea of "normal" weather, essentially unchanged over decades or centuries apart from random fluctuations, is a thing of the past, he said. "When families reconvene for Christmas in the 2040s, the envelope of 'normal weather' will have shifted by as much again as it has already shifted since the 1970s."

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Dr Paul Williams, a fellow of the Royal Society and a researcher in the department of meteorology at the University of Reading, agreed: "Simple physics tells us that warmer air can hold more water vapour. The global warming that we have experienced so far has increased the atmosphere's moisture storage capacity by about 7%. This is undisputed science and it clearly increases the potential for extreme rainfall and flooding."

"There is no doubt in my mind that climate change is partly responsible for the flooding across the north of England," said Dr Piers Forster of the University of Leeds. "This December is around 5°C warmer than normal, and physics tells us that the risk of extreme rainfall increases by 7% per degree.

"The high temperatures are the combined effect of El Niño and a man-made global warming trend. These floods are, in part, due to greenhouse gas emissions."

Three academics also say that the government's failure to take the threat of climate change seriously has made the flood damage worse.

Wpa Pool / Getty Images

Academics have blamed George Osborne's cuts to flood defences for the severity of the floods hitting the UK now.

Prof Chris Rapley, a climate scientist at University College London, said that the former environment secretary, Owen Paterson, and the Treasury "hold similarly dismissive views on the reality and threats of climate change" and "stand accountable" for not having taken steps recommended by experts to reduce the threat. He pointed to a Met Office report published in March 2014 that warned extreme rainfall events had become much more common.

He said that "[This] is one example of many similar reports from numerous sources, [and] demonstrates that expert advice on climate change risks has not been taken into account appropriately by government ministers."

Prof Andrew Watkinson, of the University of East Anglia, said: "The government has been given ample warning, by the 2004 Foresight Review on Future Flooding and the 2007 Pitt Review, that the risk of flooding in Britain would increase as the result of a whole range of drivers including more intense storms and land use management, both of which have undoubtedly played a part in the recent floods."

And in a blog post published yesterday, Prof Simon Wren-Lewis, a professor of economic policy at the University of Oxford, said that it is "nonsense to deny that Osborne/Cameron policies have significantly increased the damage and human misery caused by these floods", and blamed climate scepticism in the Tory party for the failure to take action.

He said: "We have known since at least the Pitt Review of 2007 that climate change was going to greatly increase the incidence of record-breaking bursts of rainfall in the UK. Government ministers can carry on claiming they are unprecedented, but they are not unexpected."

Wren-Lewis said that budget cuts have reduced the country's ability to cope with extreme rainfall and floods. He added that George Osborne demanded sharp cuts to flood defence budgets in 2011/12 and a one-third cut to local authority flood defence spending in last month's spending review, and that there were specific cuts in Kendal and Leeds before floods in both those areas this month. He said that Paterson cut the number of officials working on a climate change adaptation programme from 38 to six, and that the government has scrapped regulations governing land use by farmers.

He said: "A rather sinister aspect to this whole affair is the influence of widespread climate denial on the right might have had on all these bad and costly decisions… Ministers can play around with dates as much as they like to try and tell a different story, but the evidence for those cuts is there in the data."

The Treasury denies having cut flood defence budgets.

In a statement given to BuzzFeed News, a spokesman said: "We are not cutting investment in flood defences. Spending over the last parliament was higher than in the 2005-2010 parliament and will be higher still in this parliament."

BuzzFeed News has contacted the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs for a response and will update this piece when it comes.

Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.

Contact Tom Chivers at tom.chivers@buzzfeed.com.

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