We’ve been having a dreadful summer, haven’t we? What with the wildfires in Saddleworth Moor and Epping Forest, the on-off hosepipe ban in the northwest of England, and the Met Office advice not to emerge from your darkened home (unless absolutely necessary) between the danger hours of 11am and 3pm, you could almost have imagined that you were, well, in the big, bad abroad. Thank goodness everything has calmed down and we are back to nice, normal 20 degrees: variable, with showers.
Except that, I must admit, this is not quite how it has seemed to me. Yes, London was a furnace in the middle of the day; the Royal Parks are still more brown than green, and the weather forecasts – another sunny day, 29, even 30 degrees, or whatever – were becoming almost as irrelevant as they must be in the Sahara.
Yet, most people seemed to be having the time of their life. Streets and parks teemed with visitors and natives, cheerfully dressed (more or less) and obviously enjoying the outdoors. There was more colour and variety than is usually on show in this country. Parasols, sun hats and fans abounded. There was chatter and laughter. Public transport might have been oppressive to unbearable – where was that air conditioning we were promised? – but good humour generally prevailed; bus drivers waited for panting would-be passengers; buggies were graciously moved aside for wheelchairs.
Restaurants and bars were full – here at last was our long-awaited continental cafe culture. And everyone seemed that bit more relaxed, with a little more time to stand and stare – even if, dare I mention, at least some of us were still sort of at work. In sum, it was indeed like being abroad – but in a good way. Passing the parched Parliament Square one early evening last week, it seemed strange that no one was playing boules.
And when a sudden flurry of storms doused the streets one afternoon, complete strangers laughed together, shared umbrellas, or got drenched together. There was even dancing in the rain. Then the sun came out again, and it was back to the ice cream and deckchairs in the city.
All of which is a prelude to posing a rather awkward question. Could it be that, in some respects at least, climate change might be good for us? Might there be an upside to something we have regarded hitherto almost entirely as a threat?
Now I am not going to get into the scientific arguments about climate change, manmade or otherwise. Nor will I hazard any judgement on whether this British summer is a harbinger of climate change, or an early consequence of it, or the product, perhaps, of very particular conditions related to the El Nino phenomenon in the Pacific. We have heard all these theories over recent weeks, and more.
What I want to suggest is that, from a purely UK perspective, as well as for others in cooler climes, a warming of the atmosphere might not be such a bad thing.
Now, I am not ignoring the downsides. This year’s hot northern summer has allowed lethal forest fires to rage not just in parts of the UK, but far more destructively in parts of North America and northeast Asia. Japan declared a national disaster. Dozens have died in South Korea where temperatures have soared above any experienced for a century.
In southern Europe, Greece, Spain and Portugal have all suffered death and destruction from this year’s record temperatures. And, of course, in the much longer term there is the question of melting ice and rising sea levels, with dire consequences for the Inuit, polar wildlife and small oceanic islands. Parts of Africa and the Middle East, on the other hand, could face drought on a scale that would menace water wars and mass migration.
In comparison with such huge potential woes, any benefit will look trivial. But for the UK there are surely benefits from summers that are more like, well, summer. The uplift in the national mood is one; the greater appeal of sun over rain for tourists is another. If this year is anything to go by, there may also be a knock-on effect on the economy.
Latest figures suggest we splurged on more climate appropriate victuals and clothes, not to speak of days out at open-air attractions.
Looking ahead, it is also worth asking whether it would be so bad if, instead of potatoes and onions, our farms produced more of the fruits and vegetables we currently import. The medics harp on about the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, well, what better way of speeding a change in habits than being able to grow the stuff ourselves? There, too, goes the national vitamin D deficiency. Fewer pills, fewer supplements, a healthier population equals savings for the cash-strapped NHS.
It’s not just the UK that stands to benefit. Why is it the US, rather than, say, Russia, that shuns international climate change accords? A couple more degrees would make a lot more of Russia’s territory habitable and allow some of what it spends on winter-proofing to be diverted to much needed modernisation. More sun in much of Russia would surely improve the nation’s health, and happier Russians might come to be seen as less of a threat.
As for the zero-sum arguments that a warmer north, whether the UK or Russia or wherever, would necessarily mean an unliveably scorching south of Europe, here the US does show some of the way. It was only after the invention – and popularisation – of air conditioning that much of the south became an attractive place to live. Technology can help to mitigate extremes, and cooling need be no more expensive or ecologically unfriendly than heating.
France is one country that has begun adaptation. After more than 15,000 extra deaths, especially of old people, were accounted to the 2003 heatwave, regulation was updated to favour reversible heating/cooling systems in new buildings, and there is no reason why other countries should not follow suit. In fact, traditional building techniques tended to be better adapted to climate than the techniques of today. Maybe some of the old wisdom could usefully be brought back.
You may still feel – and I don’t disagree – that the long-term survival of endangered peoples and habitats is a cause far more noble than the short-term evolution of a more laid-back and fitter Britain, or a Russia where the living is less harsh. Also that, as a rich country, we have a duty to do what we can to fend off foreseeable disaster.
But as the UK settles back into its familiar routine of glaring at strangers, always carrying an umbrella, and leaving outdoor cafe tables to the smokers, let’s look back on the early summer of 2018 not just as a time of wine, World Cup and roses, but as the foretaste of a possible upside to a warmer climate. Carry on trying to save the planet by all means, but bear in mind that for our islands, as for some other countries, a bit more heat could do a lot to improve our quality of life.
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