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"Blow wind and crack your cheeks": introducing a month on living with climate change

This month our theme is "living with climate change".  We'll be exploring that from a variety of angles, speaking to climate scientists, hearing contrasting opinions as to what it could mean in practice, looking at the inner impacts it has on us.  We'll hear from Transition folks around the world as to what climate change looks like where they are, starting today with Joanne Poyourow in Los Angeles.  It has been an extraordinary few weeks in the life of climate change here in the UK.  I realise that any readers in Australia, Thailand, parts of the US, the Philippines, Alaska etc. will be thinking "welcome to our world", but this felt like the moment climate change reached these shores, made its presence felt in a way that it never has before.

Much has been written about the floods and extreme weather, but for this piece I want to turn to a commentator on such things who I haven't seen referenced in recent coverage, William Shakespeare.  In Shakespeare's King Lear, Lear has foolishly divided his kingdom between his three daughters on the narcissistic basis of which of them loves him the most.  Cordelia, the one daughter who really loves him, tells him she thinks it's a ridiculous process, for which he banishes her and divides everything between his other two daughters.  

Eventually they cast him out, destitute, heartbroken and losing his reason, onto a heath in a storm.  There then follows one of the most powerful passages in the English language as he hurls his anger and deluded self-pity into the face of the deluge:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,

Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,

Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,

Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once

That make ingrateful man!

Here is Sir Ian McKellen performing it:

 

While an extraordinary piece of writing, it also, unfortunately, seems increasingly to reflect the reaction of a substantial number of people to the recent storms.  All manner of people and organisations have been, metaphorically at least, stood on the top of the nearest hill, screaming into the face the most extraordinary storms in living memory, believing that somehow their indignation, their sheer belief, their rightness, their complete absolution from any responsibility for what is occurring, can subdue and overcome nature’s fury and return everything to "normal".    

David Cameron visiting the Somerset flooding. First there’s the government.  Driven, in part, by the need to appease the UKIP elements of their own party, discussions about the storms have rarely mentioned climate change.  When David Cameron initially suggested the two may be linked, at Prime Ministers Questions, he was booed ... by his own party.  

Although he has subsequently stated that climate change is "one of the most serious threats that this country and this world faces", this is hard to reconcile with his acting as though the opposite were the case: pledging to somehow defy physics and revive the North Sea oil and gas industry (have you seen the production decline graph?), giving tax breaks for fracking, pledging to increase airport capacity and re-open some coal mines, planning for a fourfold increase in shipping by 2050, and so on.  

This, remember, is a government whose Environment Secretary recently stated that climate change "is something we can adapt to over time and we are very good as a race at adapting".  Try telling that to people in Somerset whose living room is three feet deep in silt and sewage.  It is also a government whose Energy Minister Michael Fallon, argues that "unthinking climate change worship" has damaged British industry. 

Nigel Lawson, the former Conservative chancellor and now director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, and whose views on climate change represent those of many rank-and-file Conservative MPs, made a highly controversial appearance on Radio 4's Today Programme (which we complained about here).  "This is a wake up call", he announced, but not to do anything about the causes, rather to "focus on making sure this country is really resilient and robust to whatever nature throws at us, flood defences, sea defences and so on".  He may just as well have climbed onto the table and recited "blow wind and crack your cheeks". 

The deluded belief is that we are so clever, so powerful, so brilliant, that all we need to do is to spend enough money and flex our technological muscle and we can overcome anything.  It runs deep.  King Lear would have recognised a kindred spirit, similarly trying to hang on to a world view whose time has passed, to a sense of control that is no longer appropriate.   

graphOur media have been quite happy to join the politicians, hurling insults and indignation at the squall.  According to Carbon Brief, just 206 of 3,064 press articles on the UK's recent floods mentioned climate change (see right).  Virtually everything that I heard or read was about how we needed better defences, the need to build better dams and drains, to dredge the rivers to get rid of the water faster.

Some economists are also joining in with this approach of sticking their fingers in their ears and singing "la la la".  The Telegraph recently reported that the flooding of prime farmland in the UK and droughts and other extreme weather episodes in other parts of the world, are leading to rises in food prices.  For example, droughts in Brazil, which grows 40% of the world's coffee beans, have led to a 50% rise in coffee prices. Economist Kona Haque, head of agricultural commodities research at Macquarie, is quoted as saying:

"Suddenly, out of nowhere, we have have seen weather risk creep back into the market".  

"Out of nowhere"?!  This metaphorical hilltop has become an increasingly crowded place of late.  Those government ministers and the press have been joined, among the sodden bracken and wind-lashed trees, by the very small but highly influential band of climate sceptics, who one had hoped these floods would have inspired to crawl off under a rock somewhere to rethink things in the light of the bleedin' obvious. 

Lord Lawson has been the most prominent one of late, but the BBC’s commitment to ‘balance’ meant not just that Lawson was featured prominently on the Today Programme alongside respected climate scientist Sir Brian Hoskins, but also Andrew Montford, author of The Hockey Stick Delusion (yawn) was brought in to debate with Kevin Anderson.  Montford's "we've dealt with these things in the past, we can deal with them in the future" wins our Idiotic Statement of the Month award, echoing the even stupider statement by arch climate sceptic William Nierenberg in 1983:

"Not only have people moved, but they have taken with them their horses, dogs, children, technologies, crops, livestock and hobbies.  It is extraordinary how adaptable people can be".  

Of course in the same way that debates on evolution no longer require the input of Creationists for ‘balance’, discussions on climate change now should be achieving balance by having guests who accept that climate change is happening, but disagree on what to do about it.  For example, Kevin Anderson and Sir Brian Hoskins might have been interesting ...  just a thought.

About once a month on Twitter, climate sceptics round on me for a few hours before going off to have a pop at someone else.  During one exchange, as a way of proving his point once and for all, one of them posted the following graphic which captures the sceptic position beautifully: 

Daft graph 

His point was that "10's of 1000's of deaths (erm, caused by substandard housing, not by responses to climate change), higher taxes (a tiny proportion of taxes go to doing anything about climate change), etc, versus a few °C".  "A few °C?"  We haven't seen one degree rise yet and the Arctic ice is in its death spiral (as captured in this chilling animation), parts of Austalia are becoming uninhabitable, typhoons are acquiring a previously unseen potency, Alaska is sinking into the permafrost and so on.  Yet the sceptics continue to argue that there are flaws in the consensus. 

There’s a beautiful encounter on YouTube between Naomi Oreskes (co-author of Merchants of Doubt, who we'll be interviewing later this month) and Nick Minchin, a prominent Australian climate sceptic.  In it she puts her finger on where such people are coming from:

“It makes me wonder if the reason you want to reject the science is that it has consequences.  It has consequences for us about how we live our lives, how we run our economy, what our taxation policies are.  I think what you don’t like are the implications, the political, social and economic implications.  But what you’ve done, along with a lot of other people, is say “let’s shift the debate, let’s argue about the science, let’s keep the debate about the science going, because as long as we argue about the science, we don’t get to the question of what it means for us politically, socially and economically”. 

This makes more sense again in the context of who many of these sceptics are.  As Henry Porter put it in the Guardian recently, “Lawson, Lord Monckton, Christopher Booker, Samuel Brittan and Viscount Ridley – names that begin to give you some idea of the demographic”.  And all the time the “debate” rumbles on, those “few °C” become an increasing inevitability. 

For me though, I’ve found the experience of the storms of recent weeks far more deeply unsettling.  Rather than trying to shout down the storms, I’ve experienced them on a visceral level in a way I never have before.   What has arrived on these shores is a deep sense of uncertainty, of loss of control, a trauma over not just the scale of what happened but the intensity of it.  Here are a few snapshots:

***

cloudsAbout 15 minutes before I leave work to cycle home, I note the ominous colour of the sky, take a photo from the office window (right) and tweet it, writing "Another wave of dark dark clouds moving into Totnes. Whatever's in those clouds is what I have to cycle home through".  As I step out of the door the hail starts.  During the journey home, it comes down in pulses of varying intensity.  In all my 25 years as a cyclist, I have never ridden a bike in such conditions.  It’s like trying to cycle in a car wash while a frenzied maniac throws icy cold gravel in my face from close range.  Three times I have to get off the bike, stand with my hood held pulled down over my face, until that pulse passes.  I eventually arrive home, sodden, freezing, the tops of my legs bright scarlet, and traumatised by the whole experience.

***

I’m in Dawlish, a seaside town close to Totnes, where 2 weeks previously, the beautiful, and precarious, stretch of trainline that links the South West to London and the rest of the country, crumbled into the sea at the height of the storms.  John Clatworthy, Devon county councillor for Dawlish, was quoted in The Guardian as saying "I have been here for 44 years and we haven't had storm damage like we have now. The storm last night was unbelievable". I’ve travelled to Dawlish to see it for myself, although Network Rail and a security firm are ensuring that you can’t actually get anywhere near the damaged section of rail. 

Dawlish

My son and I are up on the cliff path, the only place you can see the breached sea wall in the distance.  We get talking to an old man on a bench, who tells us how it was a storm unlike anything he had ever seen before.  After a while I ask him if he attributes it in any way to climate change.  Not at all, he tells me, he doesn’t believe in climate change.  He does however, he tells me, believe that it is inevitable that all the gases and pollution we have put into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution have had an impact on the global climate, but no, he doesn’t believe in climate change.  Go figure. [We'll be picking up on what the psychology of this might be later this month in an interview with George Marshall]. 

***

I’m lying in bed trying to get to sleep, and outside a wild wind is raging.  The mental picture that comes to mind is of the Wild Things from ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ all leaping around in the trees.  The noise being generated is incredible, like something from a Hollywood action movie.  I’ve never known a gale like it. This all feels like I'm experiencing an intensity in the weather where I live which I've never felt before, and it's deeply unsettling.  

*** 

Near the end of Lear's speech, he exclaims, as he begins to sink into heart-breaking self pity:

"I am a man more sinned against than sinning".  

Spectator coverThis has been a strong strand over recent weeks, that we are more sinned against than sinning.  The very idea that our actions might be in any way to blame in any way for what we experienced is considered ridiculous.  For Lawson, we should be blaming a "crazy and costly policy of littering the countryside with wind turbines and solar panels".  The Daily Mail blamed the foreign aid programme, arguing that it was crazy to be sending money to help people overseas when people in the UK were being affected by flooding.  A UKIP councillor, David Silvester, blamed gay marriage.  Christopher Brooker in the Spectator (see right), blamed environmentalists, the EU, the Environment Agency, anyone who places value on biodiversity and nature conservation. 

Yet it is clear that our sins, our foolishness, like Lear’s, are coming home to roost. It’s not entirely our doing though, as the recent paper that pointed out that two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions were produced by just 90 companies made clear.  As Dame Julia Slingo of the Met Office put it recently in relation to the UK storms:

"All the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change. There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events." 

It is clear that we are now, indeed, living with climate change.  It’s a new world.  That’s a given.  But what do we do, how to we act, how do we live with climate change?  Do we decide, as Paul Kingsnorth will argue in an interview we’ll publish here in a couple of days, that:

“We have no control over the direction our climate’s now going in.  And yet we labour under this illusion that if we can come up with the right plan we can sort things out, and we can’t. Once you accept that, you sort of walk off into this strange wilderness in which you’re not in control of things”

Or do we go with Kevin Anderson’s statement in his presentation to December’s Radical Emissions Reduction Conference that:

“Avoiding dangerous climate change remains a feasible goal of the international community.  Just”.

I know where I’ll be directing my energy.  This is no time to hurl our rage at the storm, to fall prey to self pity.  For so long as Kevin Anderson’s “just” exists, these recent tempests have redoubled my motivation.  They have refocused, for many people, attention on the link to climate change and the urgent need for action.  They have given us a dose of what climate change will look like (i.e. not all sitting around in tshirts in our own vineyards topping up our tans).  But perhaps the most important thing we can do right now is to find some space in our busy lives to sit with how the events of the last few weeks have impacted on us personally.  How did those storms feel? How did they affect you? It's a question we hope you might find time to sit with this month. 

We hope you will enjoy this month's theme, and look forward to your comments and to any thoughts you might have of what else we might cover this month.  

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