Nick Cohen

How long will it be before the climate forces us to change?

To judge by the story of the little ice age, there will be decades of terrible suffering before we adapt

How long will it be before the climate forces us to change?
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This time last year, homeowners in Oxfordshire and Berkshire were recovering after storms had brought down power lines and blocked roads. Soon, power cuts were the least of their problems. The Thames flooded. In the south-west, the emergency services evacuated the Somerset Levels, and the sea wall at Dawlish in Devon collapsed — cutting the rail line to Cornwall.

Political Britain burst its banks. Ed Miliband demanded action. David Cameron convened emergency committees. TV reporters brought us urgent reports as water lapped their boots, while newspaper correspondents named the guilty men.

As in twenty20 cricket, you enjoy a quick intense hit with 24/7 news, then move on to the next game. The weather will not be an election issue. We will have the economy, the NHS, fake statistics, and possible permutations of coalition partners more complicated than a Jane Austen heroine’s dance card, but no argument about momentous changes.

Debate is confined to rows about whether deforestation and man-made emissions cause climate change. I believe it is scientifically illiterate to think otherwise. But what I believe is an irrelevance. The causes of climate change are one thing — unless you hold that the climate is not changing, then you should worry about the consequences.

At the end of his recently published Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the 17th Century, Geoffrey Parker says of our time that there ‘may perhaps be residual doubts’ about man-made climate change, ‘just as some still deny that smoking tobacco increases the risk of lung cancer, but the historical record leaves no doubt that climate change occurs, and that it can have catastrophic consequences’.

Politicians do not want to talk about consequences because they are so expensive. A briefing paper from the House of Commons library drew up a bill from the available research. One in six homes in Britain is at risk from flooding, and annual flood damage costs around £1.1 billion. The Office of Science and Technology estimated that the costs could rise to £27 billion by 2080 if current trends continue, and to prevent that calamity would take huge state intervention.

If you don’t like ‘if current trends continue’ predictions — I don’t — remember that civil servants aren’t only worrying about climate change. The cost of maintaining a crumbling flood defence and drainage system is rising. As the population grows, we will build more homes on floodplains, pave over more land. The burden does not end there. British aid workers urge benighted foreigners not to denude their lands. They forget to add that the British have denuded theirs. ‘Rather than rail against nature, there is a need to make us more resilient to flood hazard,’ says Sue Dawson, a geographer from Dundee University. We must reforest uplands so that trees can soak up rainfall, and ‘make room for water’ by reversing the draining of marshes.

I am a city-dweller who loves to walk. The idea of reforesting valleys appeals to me more than I can say. If I were a farmer faced with compulsory purchase orders on my land, however, or the owner of a home or business in a floodplain told to waterproof their property or lose insurance, I might not be so keen.

Affronted interests delay change. Proposals for a Thames barrier were first heard in the 18th century. Pressure from merchants, for whose ships it would block the Thames, stopped the idea until 1966, when Professor Hermann Bondi, the then chief scientific adviser, said the capital should not live with the risk of storm tides that would be ‘knockout blows to the nerve centre of the country’. Since its completion, the barrier has been activated with increasing frequency — 39 times between 1983 and 2000, and 75 times between 2001 and 2010 — as extreme weather has become more common.

Most Londoners barely notice. The most powerful city in the nation sits snug behind its defences. Will it worry about the rest of the country? Will, indeed, the five out of six homes not at risk of flooding want to pay more tax to protect the ones that are?

Parker shows how the mini-ice age of the 17th century provoked wars, revolutions, famines and incredible suffering. No modern historian can substantiate the claim of contemporaries that a third of the world’s population died. But Parker’s account of the fall of the Ming dynasty, Russia’s time of troubles, the collapse of stable Ottoman rule, the Thirty Years War, the French Frondes, the British civil wars, and the revolts against the Spanish monarchy, suggests that contemporaries weren’t far off the mark.

Why, he wonders, aren’t we better at facing climate change, when humans are meant to be adaptable creatures? A part of the answer in the rich world lies in our belief that we have escaped the nature. We think of natural disasters as calamities that strike elsewhere. If that was once true, it isn’t now.

A human capacity to postpone awkward decisions plays its part, too. After the 2004/5 hurricane season — which brought not only Katrina but seven of the costliest hurricanes yet to strike the US — the National Hurricane Centre asked why Americans kept building on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. They lacked foresight, it concluded. Most had never experienced a direct hit and thought it couldn’t happen to them. Even among those who had lived through a hurricane, memories faded.

Europe adapted to the climate crisis of the 17th century by developing insurance and minimal welfare states. But the change took decades. Vested interests fought it, as now. People did not want to pay higher taxes, as now. As much as anything, says Parker, ‘the frequency of natural disasters mattered as much as their magnitude’. Only repeated catastrophes made our ancestors act.

By this reckoning, it will be many years before climate change forces us to change.