The winds of climate change are blowing Scotland’s way

Imagine the drag away from a parched south and towards a north of endless winter nights. Demography develops a momentum of its own

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The Independent Online

At midsummer, two years ago, I lounged around in short sleeves, basking in the warm sun of a day without darkness. We sat 350 kilometres above the Arctic Circle, at 70 degrees north. My host was an academic whose cabin near Tromso in northern Norway housed his souvenirs of campaigning – successfully – for an “out” vote in the country’s two referenda on European community membership.

He told me he could sail his little boat into the sparkling sound and, within a few minutes, land some plump cod for supper. The Gulf Stream has never felt more real to me than in the midday balm and midnight sun of Tromso, which boasts the planet’s most northerly botanical gardens – and, by the way, its most northerly brewery: the legendary Mack’s. Just as tangible was the glamour of the “New North”: US geographer Laurence Smith’s term (in a book of that name) for the lucky countries of the Arctic rim – pristine, spacious and resource-rich.

Although Lerwick in the Shetlands only just edges above the 60th parallel, many Scots feel that their country does and should belong in this Golden North. In the months leading up to next week’s poll, people have studied the Nordic world in admiration or anxiety.

Its deepest relevance, however, may lie at a level beyond welfare budgets or taxation rates. No longer the frozen waste of legend, the mythical Ultima Thule – wherever you locate it, from Finnmark to Alaska, from Nunavut to Yakutia – now looks more like the earthly paradise to come. Moderate climate change can only intensify the pull of latitudes where wealth stored in the mountains or under the seas coincides with unpolluted land and water, and where wide, open spaces arouse the awe – perhaps even the envy – of people from more crowded lands.

Back to Tromso. The town may be Arctic, but it is far from monochrome. In a high-street sports bar, over an eye-wateringly pricey hamburger (well, it was Norway), I watched the Euro 2012 football championships with residents who originated in many corners of the world – south Asia, east Africa, the Middle East. State policy has encouraged Norway’s migrants to disperse all around the nation.

As much as the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, northern Norway used to export its own penurious fisherfolk and crofters across the oceans. We wouldn’t enjoy Fargo, let alone Garrison Keillor’s small-town comedy, without that distinctive diaspora. Oh, yah.

Now the tables have turned. Seen from the south, Europe’s north glitters like some icy peak of hope. Trust the artists about this, as much as the geologists and climatologists. David Mitchell’s astonishing new novel, The Bone Clocks, closes with a vision of Iceland as a sort of laboratory or ark of human resilience and recovery, after the ecological apocalypse of the 2030s has shattered our technological civilisation. 

Some of the emotional thrust behind the case for Scottish independence stems from this geographical optimism. This isn’t just a matter of oil reserves. Estimates of that still-buried treasure divide the referendum camps. Cautious unionists cite a figure of 15 or 16 billion barrels ready for exploitation. More expansive separatists put the total at closer to 24 billion. Paradoxically, the opposite sort of resource also generates plenty of excitement: renewable energy.

Scotland is already a renewables superpower. In 2013, water, wind and wave power generated electricity equivalent to 46 per cent of national consumption – up from 20 per cent in 2007. Scotland hosts around 25 per cent of the EU’s capacity in offshore wind. Locations such as the Pentland Firth offer world-beating sites for the harnessing of tidal energy.

Whether independent or UK-linked, Scotland evidently plans to flog fossil fuels to others while weaning itself off that fast-diminishing drug. The latest target fixes 2020 as the date for a 100 per cent contribution of renewables to its electricity supply. Equally ambitious, Scotland’s Climate Change Act 2009 envisages an 80 per cent drop in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. Both “Yes” and “No” campaigns fervently endorse this nature-powered future. 

On the referendum ground, in Dundee, Kilmarnock or Motherwell, their bracing utopia can prove as hard to spot as the Northern Lights on an overcast night. Much of the last-gasp surge in the independence campaign has come from disaffected, disadvantaged voters who live much closer to the reality of industrial decline than to the dream of post-industrial resurgence. Male life expectancy in Glasgow City languishes a full decade behind Kensington and Chelsea, where I’m writing now (72.6 years against 82.1). From the banks of the Clyde, the long-haul implications of this radiant New North may be invisible.

For so long, people have said farewell to Scotland rather than greeting it. A whole literature, and music, tells their story. “My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,” wrote that Ayrshire Lowlander Robert Burns. “My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer”. The Scots-descended diaspora multiplies the resident population of 5.3 million many times over. In the 1920s alone, Scotland lost a fifth of its working population to emigration. Thanks to the Clearances, enforced by rapacious Scottish aristocrats (who also made up a key sector in the London political elite), for every 100 people who lived in the western Highlands in 1851, only 59 remained by 1931.

Observing her starving tenantry in the 1830s, the Duchess of Sutherland – that detested Cruella de Vil of the Clearances – remarked that “Scotch people are of happier constitution and do not fatten like the larger breed of animals”. “Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig,” begins “Hallaig”, the great Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean’s lament for the Clearances on his home isle of Raasay: “The window is nailed and boarded/through which I saw the West…”

In hope or in despair, Scots left for the lucky countries of the west or south. Yet the window has opened again. Scotland will soon look more like a blessed land itself – either UK-federated or alone. The Edinburgh government’s statistical service reports that, although “historically, Scotland has been a country of net out-migration”, now it has “entered a period of net in-migration”. The raw numbers still look modest: 14,100 more people from 2012 to 2103. However, the total number of households will rise 17 per cent by 2037.

In contrast to Westminster, the administration in Edinburgh recruits new citizens. The “Yes” manifesto on immigration attacks the restrictive and punitive UK approach as “not appropriate” for Scotland’s needs. It argues for easier entry for students or spouses, lower financial thresholds, and a points-based system for non-EU migrants. All that would undoubtedly push overall numbers upwards.

This certainly sounds like the politics of hope. And demography tends to develop a momentum of its own. Whatever the result next Thursday, chances are that the magnetic north will pull harder. Should climate change accelerate, then the drag away from a parched and pressed south will gather force. And if Laurence Smith’s Arctic rim in the “New North” finds itself “the envy of the world”, then how much more those parts of Scotland that benefit from the same resources and environment but not (quite) the endless winter nights and impassable ice-fields?

Nobody in the referendum debate has  bothered much about the hundreds of desperate migrants who try to storm the cross-Channel ferries at Calais, still less the nearly 2,000 would-be incomers to Europe who – according to the UN – have drowned this year in the waters between north Africa and Italy. Yet the Golden North and the Scorched South will need to negotiate with each other. The Scottish government already has a “climate justice” programme of water projects in Africa.

Any such aid would be overshadowed by ecological calamity. One popular guesstimate suggests that environmental degradation could uproot 200 million people from their homes. That round figure rested on “heroic extrapolations”, as its originator, environmentalist Norman Myers, admitted.

The UN more recently opted for 50 million potential climate refugees. No one knows. But the 100,000-odd souls in flight from drought, want or strife who have risked their lives on leaking tubs in the Mediterranean this year are real enough. The Golden North will surely see much more of them. That will include Scotland, whether the union holds or breaks.

Even without a weather Armageddon, the strain that growing numbers place on food and land will speed this northward exodus. And Scotland’s potential attraction is a problem many other nations would like to face. Its re-peopling has already started. The latest census shows that the population of Orkney has shot up by 11 per cent. In 2012, the Highlands and Islands came out top in the “happiness index” of UK regions, with a well-being rating of 82.88 per cent. Only Rutland came close. Explain that.

Think beyond next Thursday, widen your horizons in both space and time, and any future Scotland stills look like a most favoured nation. Come what may, the star of the New North will shine on. It may well spread its lustre over the clean, green and – relatively – empty terrain north of the Emperor Hadrian’s long-defunct wall. If so, then this shift in the planet’s centre of gravity might pay no more heed to state borderlines than do the deer in the wood, or the fish in the sea.