The hot British summer: phew what a story: Since we are obsessed by the weather, why can't we confront the risk of global warming? Tom Wilkie wonders

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The Independent Online
SMUGLY resident in the mild climes of the Mediterranean, Lord Byron summed up the British attitude to the British weather: 'The English winter - ending in July, to recommence in August.'

Not so this year. Nor for many years past. In Britain and around the world, the Eighties were unusually warm. Globally, seven of the eight warmest years since accurate records began about a century ago occurred in the Eighties. And the trend has continued, with 1990 the hottest on record.

Yet the British can never quite believe it. Our psyche cannot cope with the idea that the summer months are naturally, well, hot. Certainly, the concept of the changing seasons, bringing snow in winter and heat in summer, are unfamiliar to our newspapers.

Is there any other culture which, during the summer months, would treat hot weather as a news story? It used to be straightforwardly along the lines of 'Phew, what a scorcher]' but we now live in more sophisticated times and the focus has changed to reporting hot weather by proxy. In the mid-Seventies it was the drought; during the late Eighties it was the greenhouse effect. In 1994, some reports suggest that we are being poisoned by the poor quality of the air we breathe and that our hospitals are besieged with people in dire distress from asthma.

And, rest assured, if there is the faintest covering of snow on the ground in London this winter, at least one newspaper will publish a news story about it and at least one commentator will gravely opine that the snowfall proves global warming is at an end.

This obsession with the weather is not a psychopathology peculiar to newspaper editors. All newspapers have to reflect their readers' interests, and there is no doubt that the British are obsessed by their weather.

Perhaps it is because Britain is predominantly an urban society and its climate so relatively temperate that we seem to have no collective feel for the pulse of the seasons. Despite all the fond sentimentality about England's green and pleasant land, few Britons have much real contact with the natural world.

A smaller proportion of the population works in agriculture than in almost any other country of the European Union. More of us live in cities than is the norm for other Europeans. Even in comparatively small country towns where local and therefore seasonal produce ought to be available, we pick our fruit and vegetables off the supermarket shelves - always available, uniform, and imported when out of season. We British urbanites move in an artificial world, from our domestic central heating, which insulates us from the winter chills, to our offices, where the air-conditioning tempers the fierce heat of the summer sun.

We get no closer to nature during our leisure time. Those of us who holiday within the UK tend to go to the beach rather than the countryside. The closest that we might come to contact with the natural cycle is through our national pastime of gardening. But that is partly the point: the garden is nature denied.

It is not just that we fail to recognise the annual rhythm of the seasons; we are also ignorant of the longer-term cycles at work in our climate. Settled agrarian communities may despair about the vagaries of the weather over the years, but they are seldom surprised by them. Folk memories stretch back to fit the present into a coherent pattern with the past. We, however, awash with short-term information, tend to operate with short-term memories. The information age has no time for history. Who now recalls that the weather globally was so cold during the Sixties and early Seventies that British television broadcast a serious documentary arguing that The Ice Age Cometh?

On yet longer time-scales, there have been extremes of weather before. For about 200 years, between 1100AD and 1300AD, Britain's climate was so warm that vines were grown as far north as Yorkshire. Between then and now, there was a 'Little Ice Age' lasting until about 1850 - and the real source of Lord Byron's meteorological observation.

The real question is whether the warm weather of the past decade is just part of that variation or whether it reflects a secular change due to human activity affecting the climate. Two things are certain. The first is that the greenhouse effect is real: were it not for the greenhouse gases naturally present in our atmosphere, the average surface temperature of the Earth (currently about 15C) would be 21C colder and life as we know it would be impossible in the frozen wastes (minus 6C) which would then cover the globe. The second is that human activities can have global consequences: the erosion of the ozone layer is the most obvious warning to civilisation.

What is not certain is how great would be the global warming to follow from our emissions of greenhouse gases, or how fast the temperatures will rise, or what the patterns of change might be. If change happened smoothly throughout the world, and slowly enough for patterns of agriculture and natural plant growth to adjust themselves - a time-scale of a century or more - then we might be all right. If the climate proved unstable, the runaway greenhouse effect could transform the Earth into a condition resembling that of the planet Venus - the closest physical manifestation of the medieval vision of Hell.

Global warming is a risk, not yet a fact, but we need to act now to avert it even though our knowledge is uncertain and partial. By the time we know definitely, it may be too late. For, as the heat of this summer has demonstrated, there could be worse things than the climate of Lord Byron's aphorism. Our grandchildren would not thank us if, through our present day foolishness in failing to act, they had to endure for ever: 'The English summer - starting in August to end in July.'

(Photograph omitted)