Long hot summer, short hot take

19751976 was the summer I spent mostly barefoot, staying up the park from early in the morning till the gates were locked after dark. That was the year I started at what was then called the Upper School, in the “third year”—what is now called Year 9. The great joy that year was, on my paper-round, seeing faces in a window who turned into friends-again, kicking off a summer of closeness and camaraderie, the inseparable team for tinpanalley and the other endless games of that endless summer. The pain came in September, at the Big School, when those same friends blanked me for no reason other than the new environment, because they felt like it, and because there was more space and more distance to make it stick.

1975 had been a good British summer: great in comparison to most of them, but there hadn’t been a drought, so it’s easy to forget it. It had been a warm June (average temperature 14.5ºC), followed by the warmest July since 1955 (17.1ºC), and then, the kicker, the hottest August on record (19.2ºC)—until 1995, which beat it by just 1/10th of a degree. Were it not for that summer of ’76, in fact, 1975 would have been the summer we (Gen Xers) all look back upon with nostalgia.

But 1976 was even hotter—in June and July at least, and there was a long, unbroken stretch without rain. There was a Minister for Drought, and hosepipe bans, and we were encouraged to share the bathwater, then water the roses with it, and put a brick in the toilet cistern. But August wasn’t that great, it was 2º cooler than the year before. The damage to 1975’s reputation was done, though, and it was forgotten by history. I’ve always felt about it the same way I do some beloved records. You know, like Beatles for Sale, or even Rubber Soul, as compared to Revolver. But 1975 is like the girlfriend in the distracted boyfriend meme. 1976 caught everyone’s attention and held it. But isn’t a summer in which you’re not obliged to get into someone else’s dirty bathwater as a matter of routine better than one in which you are?

Back then, when I was twelve and thirteen, I was young enough to see two years as the beginning of a pattern (all summers will be great from now on), so when the summer of 1977 came along, oh man. What a disappointment. June was a frigid 12.2ºC, July and August a gelid 15º. I went on a school camping trip that year, a week in the Wye Valley, and, boy, did it rain. And rain. That was the year of “God Save the Queen” and the Jubilee and street parties, none of which held any interest for me.

A couple of years ago, we had a bunch of people round towards the end of August for a night of pizza in the garden. It’s our usual way of returning dinner invitations. My kitchen in France is primitive, so I do most of our entertaining on the barbecue, whether it’s pizza or grilling. We sat out there long past sunset, lighting candles when it got dark, and enjoying the warm evening, not noticing the rolling thunder that might have been in the hills, even then. Because suddenly, as if someone threw a switch, the wind picked up, and the umbrella blew over, and the big orange awning started to flap like a mainsail in an Atlantic swell. By 11 o’clock, it was raining, big drops, and our guests were helping us get everything we didn’t want to get wet inside. Like that, summer was over.

This year, the weather changed a few days ago. We’ll be eating indoors for our final dinner with friends tonight, and I’ll be barbecuing in the rain. But it has been a hot one, hasn’t it? We’ll know in a couple of days whether this August has beaten 1995 and 1975. I’m going to guess not, though, as I think the weather broke in Britain before it did over here in France. It was dry; I think I can count the number of rainy days on one hand. But no 2018 summer month has been a record breaker as far as I can tell. July was hot (19.5º), but not as hot as 2006 (20º) and June was 0.4º cooler than 1976. Other places had it worse, and I suppose that global temperatures might tell a different story. All those wildfires. How many had natural causes, I wonder?

Back in 1976, Farmers were still in the habit of burning stubble in the fields, so we’d see palls of smoke up in the hills. This practice was banned in 1993, but it would give some kids ideas. We, my friends and I, sometimes hung out with some other kids, not really friends, but the same age as us. We’d come together for cricket matches or giant tinpanalley games. I remember going up the Downs once (the Downs behind my parents’ house), and we encountered a bunch of them setting fire to the railway embankment. Great swathes of dry grass were left scorched. How many of the wildfires in North America and Scandinavia were started with a match?

It’s easy to buy the narrative that extreme weather events are increasing in frequency. I’m sure there’s an upward global temperature curve, but looking at localised UK data from the last fifty years, it’s hard to see much of a pattern. 1975 and 1976 felt like something was happening, but then 1977 brought us all crashing back to earth.

I think it more likely that the negative effects of climate change for the UK will involve quantities of water coming from the sky rather than anything special in terms of summer temperatures. In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed this summer: I tried not to complain too much about the heat, even when I was sweating in my classroom back in June and July. But sitting inside today as it rains intermittently outside, I can already feel my cycling tan fading. And we lit a fire to help dry the washing, so…

Putting things together on climate change

 Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 09.58.21In California they are experiencing a drought – Californians have been asked to cut their water use by 20%. Meanwhile, on this soggy island in the North Atlantic, we have experienced more rain in December and January than even 2012. But who remembers that 2012 was the second-wettest year on record (the wettest was as recently as 2000)? Who, in fact, can remember a time when there was more rain than this? The answer is: nobody. Even if they were 200 years old, they couldn’t remember this much rain.

The rain map shows that some parts of the UK (including the tip of Norfolk, which must come as a relief to them) have had less rain than in an average January. But what’s an average anyway?

What we see is very much a picture of the wet areas of the Earth getting wetter … Those would be the high latitudes like the Arctic and the lower latitudes like the tropics. The middle latitudes in between, those are already the arid and semi-arid parts of the world and they are getting drier.

The problem with Britain and all this rain, of course, is that we don’t have the infrastructure to do anything with all this water. Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow store it and use it for, you know, agriculture and so on in hotter, drier times? We build housing estates and they just send water into the main sewer system of the town onto which they’re glommed. When it rains too much, the sewer system can’t cope and the rivers can’t cope and the water just spills out all over the place.

People complain about the building on flood plains. To me, this wouldn’t be so bad if the houses were on stilts, or otherwise designed to have their ground floor periodically flooded, but nobody thinks like that. It wouldn’t even be so bad if they put in giant storm drains and somewhere for the water to go, but they’ll never do that, and the nimbys wouldn’t allow it. The real problem is this country’s infrastructure, which has been deliberately and systematically neglected for reasons of ideology and greed.

When Milton Keynes was built, it was created with artificial balancing lakes, designed to take excess water from the large storm drains in times of excessive rain. But Milton Keynes is a child of the 60s and 70s. Since the late 1970s, every public service has been privatised, including the stuff of life (water), and the water companies pay dividends to shareholders instead of building infrastructure.

But it’s not just water companies. Our Victorian railway system is creaking at the seams. The ideologues who have been running the country since 1979 don’t really believe in collective forms of transport, and (of course) the privatised rail companies have no incentive to maintain or build new infrastructure and every reason to fleece as much money as they can from their uncomfortable passengers.

The bigger picture here is that, because we have virtually no manufacturing, the only way for anyone in this country to have a retirement pension is for profits and growth to somehow add value to shares without the means to actually do that. And so profits and growth miraculously appear in spite of the fact that hardly anybody makes anything — at the expense of infrastructure. All that steel that could have been smelted to improve the railways and build trains!? All that concrete that could have been poured to build better sewer systems! All those underground cables that could have been laid, along with fibre optics, cable tv, updated gas mains, and so on.

As to the roads, well. Look around you. This is what 30 years of neglect and under-investment looks like.

As the infrastructure crumbles, corporations extract profits, and miraculously pay hardly any tax. They benefit from the roads and the railways and the water system and the electricity supply and the education system and the health service that keeps their workers productive until well into their 60s, and they pay hardly any tax. They crush the roads under their lorry wheels, herd their workers into overcrowded trains, and pump water out of the ground to feed the economy, and they pay hardly any tax.

Meanwhile, the world they’re creating is turning around and biting back. Drought, floods, record low temperatures, melting icecaps and permafrost. According to some, humanity will be extinct by 2040.

If you’re too busy to read the evidence presented below, here’s the bottom line: On a planet 4 C hotter than baseline, all we can prepare for is human extinction (from Oliver Tickell’s 2008 synthesis in the Guardian). Tickell is taking a conservative approach, considering humans have not been present at 3.5 C above baseline (i.e., the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, commonly accepted as 1750). According to the World Bank’s 2012 report, “Turn down the heat: why a 4°C warmer world must be avoided” and an informed assessment of “BP Energy Outlook 2030” put together by Barry Saxifrage for the Vancouver Observer, our path leads directly to the 4 C mark. The 19th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 19), held in November 2013 in Warsaw, Poland, was warned by professor of climatology Mark Maslin: “We are already planning for a 4°C world because that is where we are heading. I do not know of any scientists who do not believe that.”

And how do we respond to all this? Well, Professor Guy McPherson is given a nickname: “Doomsday Professor”. That’s that dealt with, then. Nicely trivialised. Meanwhile, we shy away from the very idea that the only thing that can help us now would be the total collapse of the capitalist economy.

If you have children, you can’t allow yourself to focus on the thought that they might not live to be as old as you are now. The information just slides off your brain and goes somewhere else.

The media help this process. The first mistake the climate scientists made was in ever referring to something called global warming. Because that has been the perpetual excuse not to pay attention, or to deny reality. But I guess they didn’t know, back in the 1960s, what the actual results of that warming would be. They didn’t have the ability to create computer models, and couldn’t take into account such things as feedback loops which increase the pace of change. They wouldn’t have been able to imagine such things as a “stuck” jet stream leading to endless waves of wet storms in the UK, or a “stuck” arctic vortex leading to astonishingly low temperatures on one coast of the USA, while the other coast suffered a catastrophic drought. Or the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Philippines, in November last year.

It’s not even that it’s just the weather, is it? It’s the weather, and the crumbling infrastructure. And it’s not even just that. It’s the weather, and the crumbling infrastructure, and the sheep wrecking, and the felling of trees, and the rising sea levels, and human greed. And the weather. It’s not as if it stops raining long enough for anyone to repair a road properly.

Do I have a conclusion? It’s always the same one: we’re all responsible. Not just in the “you voted Tory, now live with it” sense, but in the sense that we keep demanding things that the planet cannot give us. Economic growth. Pensions. New houses. Uninterrupted electric power to charge all our new gadgets. Fresh drinking water. Repaired potholes. A health service that keeps us alive into our 80s, 90s. Everything we demand, as a right, is contributing to the problem. And can we stop ourselves?