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Talking endlessly about the weather is a quintessentially English habit, associated with polite queueing, supporting the underdog and drinking tea in the afternoon. The English weather may be capricious but the whole idea of the ploy is to play safe, conversationally speaking. Foreigners may speak of revolutionary politics or daring sex but the English will avoid such dangerous waters with discussions of scattered showers and sunny intervals which could excite nobody.
Now, suddenly, everything has changed. Britain’s weather has gone from being the safest of subjects to the most inflammatory. Politicians talking about the weather are on the front line; flooding has caused more rifts in the country’s coalition government than the most savage of cuts to social benefits.
The great thing about the English climate, I was brought up to believe, was its temperateness. Not for us the extreme heat of the Mediterranean in summer, or the freezing cold of a Russian winter. “Flaming” June might often turn out rather damp, and Wimbledon fortnight, which begins in that month, is almost as well known for the sight of ground staff dragging out covers as it is for the quality of the tennis. Even so, the tournaments, including those taking place before the centre court roof went on, rarely ended more than a day after their allotted time.
Such reassuring ideas were only partly true, of course. Every now and then something dramatic did occur. The storm surge of 1953 killed more than 300 people in the eastern counties of England (and 1,800 in Holland) but pales beside the great storm of 1703, which caused thousands of deaths, left houses in London looking “like skeletons”, according to Daniel Defoe and was, in his words, “the most violent tempest the world ever saw” (The Storm, 1704).
Just before a violent cyclone struck England in October 1987, the weather forecaster Michael Fish reassured the population that there would be no hurricane. In the event, millions of trees were blown down, Sevenoaks in Kent lost six of its seven oaks and, as I can still clearly recall, the deer park at Knole Park, in Sevenoaks, resembled a first world war battlefield.
Fish’s faux pas has become a sort of cherished national joke, on a par with the lamentable performances of the ski-jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards. But now the joke is wearing thin. Of course, floods and storms have always happened but not so often or with such severity. The autumn of 2000 was the wettest on record in England, Wales and Northern Ireland: peak flows on five major rivers were at their highest for 60 years.
Then, in 2007 Britain suffered its wettest May to July since records began in 1776; the relief operation was described as the biggest to take place in peacetime. Now Britain has experienced its wettest January in what has already been announced as its wettest winter on record. “Once in a century” events are happening at least once a decade.
The classic English conversation about the weather is phlegmatic and presupposes a certain resilience, not just in those who suffer the rain, hail and storm but also of the climate itself. We only like to complain about it because it is not that bad. If it became really malignant, we might have to stop talking about it and do something. Or at least think more seriously about it.
Weather, which we generally take to be a light, not especially serious, subject, is in some ways the most serious subject of all. It is a matter of life and death.
The more we explore the solar system, the more we comprehend the truly exceptional blessedness of the Earth’s atmosphere and weather. More than 200,000 people applied to take a one-way ticket to Mars on the Mars One project but I wonder if they have consulted the Martian weather forecast, available via a number of websites. The red planet is far colder and drier than our blue one. Dust storms on Mars are often planet-wide phenomena and can last for a month. The planet lacks much of a magnetic field, so the thin atmosphere is buffeted by solar winds.
Mars is a chilly and inhospitable place; it might also serve as a warning about how relatively small temperature discrepancies can lead to hugely different outcomes.
Our own Earth has not always been equally welcoming to life. The Permian mass extinction event that occurred 252m years ago, and led to the disappearance of 93 to 97 per cent of all species on Earth, seems to have been linked to a warming of temperatures initiated by huge volcanic eruptions in Siberia. It is only the most dramatic of a series of mass extinction events linked to climate change. The latest, it seems, is occurring now, and as a result of our own efforts. If we continue with business as usual we are heading for a temperature rise of as much as 6C by the end of this century, the same as that which triggered the initial phase of the Permian extinction. Perhaps the conversation about weather needs to get more heated before it can cool down again.
More columns at ft.com/eyres
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