Tuesday 25 July 2006

Phew, what a scorcher

Is it me, or is it hot in here? Living as I do on a perpetually windy Northumbrian hilltop, in a house without central heating, one of the few things I have never needed to worry about is being too warm. But last week I found myself compelled to abandon my usually rather dank study and take a siesta. This is unprecedented. Afternoon naps are extremely well precedented, but they usually follow the sort of alcohol consumption that we keep being warned against by that prissy Australian kindergarten teacher who allegedly runs the Health Service. This one wasn’t.

Clearly something is happening to the weather, but then something is always happening to the weather. Every time an apparently amazing bit of it crops up, we discover that we’d have seen it all before if only we’d lived long enough. Thus the Great Storm of 1703 caused devastation across southern England on a far greater scale than the hurricane of 1987, now memorable chiefly for making Michael Fish a national laughing stock. The dreadful winter of 1963 wasn’t a patch on those of 1684 or 1740. And so on.

What does seem to be clear is that England enjoyed a pretty attractive climate at the time of the Norman Conquest, when vineyards flourished, and that it deteriorated from about 1300 with the onset of a ‘mini ice age’. This cooling meant poorer crops and more disease, including the Black Death, so life expectancy fell. They may be sticking heatwave warnings on the telly now, but the fact is that humans tend to do better when it’s warmer, if doing better is measured by their span of healthy life.

The end of the ‘mini ice age’ around the middle of the nineteenth century happened to coincide with the onset of really serious industrialisation. We can all agree that it has been getting steadily warmer ever since. Whether there is a causal relationship between human greenhouse gas emissions and global heating is more debatable, but I’m inclined to the commonsense view that, even if the alarmists have got it wrong, there’s no harm taking some sensible precautions.

Personally, I like it a bit hotter and think that Northumberland with a Mediterranean climate would be a very heaven. If that meant that the actual Mediterranean got a Saharan climate, that would also be all right with me. So long as our national preparations for the great warm-up included heavy investment in both improved sea defences and coastal surveillance, to keep out the hordes seeking refuge on this favoured isle.

There might be significant population movements within the country, too. A few weeks ago I enjoyed a long and sumptuous Sunday lunch under a garden pergola in Slaley, and everyone agreed that it was just like being in Tuscany. Including me, even though I have never been to Tuscany in my life. But it strikes me that with Waitrose opening in Hexham, the Tyne Valley is going to become absolute paradise for the middle classes. No doubt we shall soon see hordes of them coming as refugees from drought-stricken Surrey, with a few pathetic belongings strapped to the roofs of their Chelsea tractors. I am sure we shall give them the welcome they deserve.

The only snag with this climate change lark is that there’s no telling where it will stop. If the real pessimists on global warming have got it right, the polar ice caps will melt and the Gulf Stream will stop, so we’ll end up with the temperatures of Canada rather than Umbria. The only saving grace I can find in this is that it will also disrupt the current global pattern of trade winds, so with any luck there will be nothing to turn the gigantic windmills with which the eco-fanatics wish to adorn our loveliest hills. At least that will give the next generation something to laugh about as they hunker down in their igloos.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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