Saturday, July 29, 2006

Let’s talk about the weather - again

Let’s talk about the weather - again
By Matthew Engel
Published: July 28 2006 19:29 | Last updated: July 28 2006 19:29
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

This column comes to you from Manchester, the English city whose propensity for cold drizzle has long been part of folklore (with reason, in my experience). Travelling up from the south on Friday, I did not even bother to bring a sweater, never mind an umbrella. There is a change in the weather, and it is psychological as well as meteorological.

The weather has always gone weird now and again, wherever we are. In every place, extremes turn into conversational touchstones that last as long as living memory. The British have the winter of 1963, the summer of 1976 and the storm of 1987; Chicago had the killer heatwave of 1995; the French shudder thinking about the heat of 2003.

But normally these great exceptions are local, caused by strange goings-on in the jet stream. A drought in Manchester may mean that the Côte d’Azur is getting Mancunian rain. This summer is different. Day after day, the newspapers tell the same story across the northern hemisphere: from Abu Dhabi, Ajaccio and Algiers to Vienna, Washington and Zurich – temperatures above 30, 35 or even 40°C.

Coastal California, usually balmy, has been nudging 45°C (113°F), a phenomenon described by Bill Patzert, a Nasa scientist in Pasadena, as “extreme makeover warming”, saying that the state’s overdevelopment is partly to blame. Moaning Californians are unlikely to have noticed the similar temperatures in Iraq, where they are accompanied by the absence of fripperies such as electricity and water.

For a global phenomenon, although colder, we might have to go back to 1816, “the year without a summer”, when the world was shrouded in ash from the eruption of Mount Tamboro, causing global crop failure and food riots in Paris. This hot season may not have a name; it may hardly be remembered; it may be the first of many.

How are we coping? We will talk about the politicians another day. The rest of us are beset by paradox. Air-conditioning companies cannot keep up with demand, even though we know that the installation of air conditioning in itself hastens climate change. Prices of coastal properties – even minuscule beach huts – are climbing towards the troposphere, in spite of the predictions of inundation from rising sea levels. In places such as Manchester, where summer used to be “three fine days and a thunderstorm”, we relish the endless sunshine, even while fearing what it might mean.

In that mood we approach August, the traditional time for Europeans and North Americans to bask, bake and relax while, perhaps, in the back of our minds, formulating ways of resolving our own problems in the cooler months ahead.

But now it is the summer sunshine that is itself the problem. Perhaps the heat might force everyone – leaders and led – to return to work with a new realisation and determination that fatalism and complacency are no longer sensible options.

The writer is an FT commentator on politics and sport


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