I can imagine a farmer somewhere in Scotland emerging from the throes of lambing and/or calving that had occupied him through most of a hellish March and April, during which he had just managed to drill spring barley and now in early May hoped to plant potatoes, saying: “Election? What election? European Union referendum? What referendum?”
Those at the sharp end of farming are always of necessity more preoccupied with day-to-day weather than almost anything else. Lee Marvin’s prospector in Paint Your Wagon might have summed them up unfairly when he said “once a farmer’s pulled his turnips and talked about the weather, that’s about as much as he can handle for the day”, but it hid a deeper truth. Governments and European Union membership might come and go, but the weather is always with us.
As King Lear cried out: “Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurricanes spout till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks.”
But as has been pointed out, Lear starts his rant on the moor as a king trying to issue orders and ends it by realising that he’s just another man in the rain, feeling “what wretches feel”, that is wet, cold and miserable.
And haven’t we felt that in the past two or three months when the waterproofs and thermals and heavy sweaters and gloves have been put away “for the summer” several times, only to be hauled out again with various colourful expressions of disbelief? Another day when no drilling or planting was possible, another day trying to decide the trade-off between spraying and gouging ever-deeper tramlines, another day of having to keep lambs and ewes inside, another day of “lazy” winds going through rather than round.
As we dealt with these daily frustrations and savage changes of weather I’m not sure how many of us thought about climate change. Believers argue for it, sceptics argue that historically we have always had weather extremes. Shakespeare’s frequent references to weather, good and bad, can be related to the severe rivers-frozen winters, bad harvests and wet summers when he was writing.
We don’t have to be that old to remember the winters of 1947 and 1963, the appalling summer of 1985 and more specific incidents such as the east coast of England flood in 1953 that drowned several hundred people or the April storm of 1981 that killed thousands of lambs. And not old at all to recall the floods that have taken place since 2000, as well as disasters in other parts of the world such as the tsunami of 2004.
Are the more recent weather extremes indicators of inexorable climate change, an argument seemingly supported by most of the years since 2000 getting warmer? Or are they simply a coincidental run of weather incidents?
If Lear’s view was from the heart – what hill shepherd hasn’t at some time been tempted to shout something along the same lines, defying the weather to do its worst? – then several hundred years on there’s naught for our comfort in a recent global weather forecast I saw for 2016: “A new menace is about to send the world’s climate into turmoil. By the summer, floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes are expected to cross the world as the Pacific does a somersault from the recent El Nino, to the opposite effect, La Nina.”
Thanks, weather expert Paul Symons, summarising the view from the Met Office. That’s a lot to look forward to. In more detail it includes a heavy monsoon causing flooding in India and Asia and hurricanes in the Atlantic. And what about the dry conditions that fuelled Canada’s recent horrifying forest fire and the drought in Australia where the 1,000 mile Darling river is virtually dry?
We might think we’ve had it rough in the past two or three months, but any glance round the world suggests others have it much rougher. So far May has been relatively kind – but that’s to the north of Britain. Further south rainfall has been heavy. Come to think of it, we could do with some rain…