Pete Martin: A topic too hot to ignore
GLOBAL climate is a big, chaotic system that’s difficult to understand – but with big changes evidently afoot, we need to get clued up, and do it quickly.
‘This is the worst summer ever,” I moaned. “You said that last year,” sighed my girlfriend. And it’s true. Last year, I thought our summer weather couldn’t get any worse. I was wrong. For wet, windy, chilly weather, last month could well equal the UK’s worst June since records began in 1766.
It’s a question of expectation, I suppose. I had formed the delusion that, even in Scotland, the word “summer” meant bright sun, blue skies and a balmy Mediterranean vibe. That’s how we get the idea we could live al fresco. Even for a few days this year, barmy pale people have suddenly appeared in public in shorts and tiny tops. You see their often over-ample flesh turned painful pink as it’s exposed to the gaze of the sun and the dismay of the sensitive. Remember folks, it’s not the weather that has to be hot for you to be scantily-clad; it’s you.
Worse still, I think back to when I was a boy and remember endless summer – seeing tar bubbles melt on the path in our local park; going berry-picking and turning nut brown; or swimming in the Tay or in the sea almost anywhere on Scotland’s east coast. Now I wonder if that were all a dream.
On top of which, as I got older, they promised me global warming and I was quite taken with the notion of Scotland becoming the new south of France.
Other than the general disappointment that comes with life experience, what strikes me most about the way golden summer has been turned into leaden, sodden, sodding autumn is its effect on the mood of the nation.
In northern climes, we all know about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in the winter months. Lack of light disrupts our bio-rhythms and brain chemistry. We feel lethargic and moody, and want to ingest calorie-dense foods and alcohol in large quantities.
For a rotten, rain-filled summer, I’m proposing a new disorder: DAMP syndrome – short for Depression and Mild Paranoia. It’s the “iron in the soul” of Sartre’s existential angst, turned to rust.
In the highly unlikely event that there is an Almighty, it seems more than likely that he hates us. Try organising a wedding, a barbecue or any kind of festival in summer in Scotland, and the old beardy guy upstairs is certain to urinate all over your plans.
No wonder foul weather seems to seep into our psyche. I’m famous in my own household for saying ,“We should definitely move here” any time we visit anywhere the sun is shining. To which my girlfriend replies, “You always say that.” And it’s true. Barcelona, Paris, Miami, even Glasgow on a sunny day, it doesn’t matter where really. Everywhere looks so much better and everything seems so much brighter in the sunshine.
The reverse is also true. After weeks of dismal rain, we see the algal slime forming on the patio and it breeds tiny monsters in our minds. We start to connect our general sense of weather-driven gloom with human doom. You can see how the wandering tribes of Israel got the idea that the biblical plagues were a visitation.
In our modern UK version, we’ve had a plague of water lately with floods and hose-pipe bans at the same time. Not to mention the lethal water-borne bacteria of Legionnaires’ disease in Edinburgh.
In government, we have a plague of baby-faced toads – spivvy posh boys toadying up to their City chums. After all that has gone on, Chancellor George Osborne seems set to support British bankers’ right to pay outrageous bonuses in the face of European attempts to curb such greed.
Over at Ibrox, we’ve had a plague of parasites. When the whistle is finally blown on this saga, we will find that many, many people have sucked the lifeblood out of that club – taking out very large sums of money and giving nothing in return to the fans or Scottish football. And yet the direst curse may still be to come: a plague of wild bears roaming the land every second Saturday, taking their well-known cuddly natures to small towns and football grounds. In the financial markets, we’ve had the pestilence of arrogance and dishonesty. In the eurozone, it’s been financial fire and brimstone. In the media, the Leveson Inquiry with the help of Robert Jay, QC has been attempting to lance the plague of boils produced by the Murdoch empire’s misdeeds.
And the final plague – the plague of darkness – I believe the hideous glam metal rock band has already re-formed.
We’re doomed, doomed, I tell you.
In our more rational moments, we know the weather is just the weather. It doesn’t know we exist, never mind that we’re planning a barbecue. The system is so vast and so chaotic, it defies man’s comprehending. In the cliché of chaos theory, the beat of a butterfly wing in a far-off forest becomes a hurricane on the other side of the world.
And yet we still expect some kind of stability. The trouble is, in geological time, that’s largely an illusion: our climate is chaotic. It may not be obvious to us but there’s chaos in even the simplest systems. For example, we like to think a dripping tap has a regular rhythm but, in reality, it speeds up, slows down, maybe even stops.
Looking at our weather, even from the limited viewpoint of an open-top Edinburgh tour bus, it’s obvious that the climate is changing. And not in a good way. What’s equally obvious to geologists is that the world’s climate has changed before. In the history of planet Earth, it has been lot colder than it is now. But, for longer periods, it’s usually been a lot warmer – even before humans invented fire and the world’s first man-made CO2 emissions. We don’t know what caused those previous shifts in the climate, except that it wasn’t us. We weren’t here.
Today too, it’s possible that human beings are innocent bystanders in a world in which the weather was going to change disastrously for us anyway. We might even agree that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and in the sea are critical in climate change, but still argue that more carbon escapes from bovine bottoms than all the fossil fuels we burn up. We could even believe that climate change, having started, is impossible to stop.
And yet, there’s one argument for action on climate change that cannot be countered.
The late great Christopher Hitchens was capable of the most searing scepticism on almost any subject. Accused of denying climate change in a TV interview, Hitchens calmly stated his position: “The thing about global warming is not whether there is any warming, but whether human activity is responsible for it. My line is we should act as if it is. We don’t have another planet on which to run the experiment. So, if it turns out that there was no severe global warming threat, or that it wasn’t man-made, then all we would have done is make a mistake in analysis, which we could correct. But if it turned out that there was, and we’d done nothing about it… that would lead to disaster.”
Many years ago, I was visiting my mate Gino, who ran an ad agency in the beautiful but dry city of Brisbane on Australia’s Gold Coast. Sitting in his swanky office with his feet on the desk, he suddenly leapt up, ran to the window and peered through the blinds. “Look,” he said like he was a kid, and Santa was outside. “Rain!”
I often think about that when I look out of my office window and see the rain bouncing off the car park. Truthfully, in terms of our weather and climate change, it’s time to get our feet off the desks.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 4 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 17 mph
Wind direction: North east