I write this from the Dordogne, where temperatures hit 39C in the first days of my arrival. A couple of hours’ drive from this spot are areas where the “canicule”, as they call the heatwave in France, topped 40C for days, and where, in the Gironde, wildfires raged for weeks. Another heatwave, France’s third this year, is forecast.
Among the areas swallowed by the flames was a campsite we once stayed at, at the foot of the famous Dune du Pilat, a giant wall of sand bordered by aromatic pines. Their scent is the smell of holidays. The trees, now turned to ash, are Scots Pine, the same species that dominates our west coast.
It can seem as if Scotland is a safe little corner of the world, but the truth is climate change is coming for us, and while the gauge might not rise so high, the fact that we are not prepared to deal with such change will mean we do not escape its impact.
Only last month we saw the hottest temperature on record, at 34.8C, in the Scottish Borders. The risk rating for wildfires in parts of Scotland was raised to “very high”. And in recent weeks SEPA put out an alert around water scarcity, warning such scarcity was “a very real threat as a result of climate change.”
As the UK Climate Change Committee put it, when it launched a withering report assessing Scotland’s preparedness for climate change earlier this year, “Over the last 30 years, average temperature in Scotland has risen by 0.5C, Scottish winters have become 5 per cent wetter and sea level around the Scottish coast has increased by up to 3cm each decade. Further climate change in Scotland is now inevitable, no matter how rapidly global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.”
Among the inadequacies it notes are the absence of “credible plan to adapt farmland habitats and species to a changing climate”, the lack of infrastructure adaptation planning, lack of plans to manage coastal erosion risk and that the “increasing frequency and intensity of extreme high temperatures are not being adequately considered in housing and buildings strategies”.
There’s a prescience to the publication of Bill McGuire’s new book. Hothouse Earth, in which the Professor of Geophysical & Climate Hazards analyses just how bad it may get. While I’m anti-doomism, I think it’s worth paying attention to those scientists who sound the loudest alarms, and McGuire is one of them.
McGuire, who finished this book in the last days of 2021, long before the current record-breaking UK heatwave, notes that whilst Britons may still celebrate summer heat that may not be the case in the future. “By the second half of the century, 40C + summer temperatures in southern and central parts of the UK could well be driving people out of their appallingly insulated homes and towards cooler parts of the country.” He imagines a 2100 UK in which London is deserted and even the Westminster parliament moves to Carlisle.
He has also said, “When our children are our age, they will yearn for a summer as “cool” as 2022.”
“The reality is,” he writes, “that even if the short-term goals set out at COP26 to bring emission down are met, the global average temperature rise will still be at least 2.4C and quite possibly higher.”
But he is not without hope. “If we carry on the way we are ,” he writes, “a 2C hike could be upon us within a couple of decades. But, if instead, we act to slash emissions now, this rise could be put off into the next century, or even beyond.”
Reading Hothouse Earth I couldn’t help but wish someone would put his book in the hands of Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, who have seemed largely keen to keep climate off the debate agenda.
What scientists like McGuire are telling us is that we have an enormous double task ahead which should top all debates. We need to adapt rapidly to extreme weather, whilst at the same time becoming more serious in our efforts to ratchet down emissions.
What are McGuire’s answers? Mostly that we need to dramatically curtail emissions today rather than tomorrow. Unsurprisingly, McGuire is an advocate for forcing the fossil fuel sector to leave known oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground. He calls for the scrapping of subsidies to the sector and the ending of all new exploration licences, as well as a “carbon tax levy at the wellhead and mine entrance”.
None of the measures he recommends, including the wider call for “system change”, are that surprising. But there’s a principle at the heart of them that, “In order to limit the consequences of the climate chaos heading our way, the honest truth is that, of every decision taken, of every choice made… the question must be asked: is this good for the climate?”
If our politicians could start from this question then we might stand a chance.