Turned Out Nice: How the British Isles Will Change as the World Heats Up by Marek Kohn, Faber £12.99, 286 pages FT Bookshop price: £11.99
Global warming is dangerously overheated. To the bemused onlooker, it seems to be a branch of predictive science dominated by empurpled men bellowing at one another. Self-righteous doomsters lick their lips as they list the horrors rushing towards us as a direct result of our greed and selfishness. Self-righteous “sceptics” pounce on mistakes by scientists to denounce the whole man-made global warming thesis as a leftish, hairshirt-wearers’ plot.
There is no escape from the shouting. However meticulous the science, prediction is only prediction. As Ian McEwan recently reminded us in his novel Solar, climate science is as riven by ego, jealousy, mixed motives and exaggeration as any other branch of human thought. The range of possible outcomes seems confusingly wide. Britain’s outlook is sometimes touted as consisting mainly of a drastic drying-out of farmland, terrible droughts and vineyards in Yorkshire; or, alternatively, a long cold freeze, making Glasgow Vladivostok and turning Birmingham Canadian, as the Gulf Stream switches off.
Marek Kohn, one of Britain’s platoon of first-class popular science writers, injects some delightful coolness and subtlety into all this. This is pleasantly appropriate, since he expects Britain and Ireland to continue to be protected by the seas to their west, bringing cloud and rain but still making them one of the most favoured places on earth. “Buffered by the Atlantic,” he writes, “the British Isles will start to resemble a Northern Arcadia, and their climate will be an object of envy rather than derision.”
Kohn is sceptical about the dangers of the Gulf Stream switching off, and says that even if its circulation is weakened because of melting ice, that will only offset the warming of land on both sides of the Atlantic. In general, he expects a warmer, windier and often wetter pattern of weather that will come to seem delightful to Mediterranean people struggling with ferocious heat and water shortages, never mind to Africans and Asians whose experience of climate change will be far, far worse than ours.
So forget the British migration to the south of France and to Spain; in the future, well-off Spaniards and Italians will be colonising Bournemouth, Exeter and Hove. Information technology geeks will be setting up business in the Yorkshire Dales, and Britain in general will become much, much more crowded. Kohn scatters “might”, “maybe” and “could” throughout, yet in general he manages to make clear predictions.
He does so during an imaginative journey through different parts of the British Isles, crammed with detail. From egrets to thorium and nuclear fusion, the spread of beavers and kites to the prospects for Irish cattle-farming and the coming winter wheat boom, Kohn fills his pages with vivid specifics, drawn from an awesome-looking library of research. If he sometimes enjoys the nature ramble so much that he pursues small paths for a few pages longer than this reader’s attention held, then it’s an engaging fault.
But the heart of the book is not in the detail of greenery-swaddled London buildings or the case for saving the Spanish imperial eagle by giving it a new home in Dorset; it is in the politics of climate change that lie ahead. With massive migratory pressures pushing people north, he suggests trouble looms: “Political and economic forces have been bringing the British Isles and the Continent together: climate change will conspire to drive them apart again.”
Yet later, Kohn imagines a greatly expanded European Union that has embraced the Islamic countries to its south and east under the slogan “Shelter for Our Neighbours from the Storms”; an EU of which the British remain enthusiastic members. This scenario strikes me as wildly optimistic. It is far likelier that anti-immigration politics will rise swiftly up the agenda. As Kohn also points out, this would be historically unfair, since the British led the way in coal-burning industrialisation, starting a process that will punish the already poor. But voters tend to have a weak sense of history and a strong streak of self-preservation.
He is on stronger ground when he tries to think ahead to the domestic politics of surveillance, jostle and shortage: “By 2100, life in Britain is something like life on a ship in the 1900s. A lot of people are closely packed together and have to share the same resources: the result is a regime of extensive and detailed regulations, together with a strong moralistic imperative of mutual respect and orderly community.”
Kohn paints a picture of the compulsory carrying of mobile phones, so that our movements can be tracked; of “countryside” walks along narrow paths, with no straying allowed; and in general of a prissier, more prying, more censorious country. It seems a horrid prospect, but I’m afraid it is a shrewd forward guess.
Now Britain is living in a new political world, with the Con-Lib coalition; but the most important political divide may not be properly represented by the party system at all. It is the one between organic conservatives, who are against the post- Enlightenment carbon-gorging trajectory of industrial civilisation, and want to go back to simpler ways of living; and, on the other hand, pro-market scientific optimists who want more growth and look to technical fixes to sort out the problems. It’s a deep intellectual fissure.
Should we pull up our national draw-bridges; eat only local food; perhaps go vegetarian; stop travelling nearly so much? Or should we invest heavily in new nuclear technologies, GM foods, keep our borders open and carry on shopping? In the real world, most of us will carry on living in the wide margin between such choices. We will be inconsistent, break our own rules, lurch between black despair and unnatural cheerfulness; and as the world changes, find new things to enjoy, as well as to fear.
This is a good primer for anyone who wants to think about the British future without being suicidal or consciously blinkered. What’s ahead will be most probably different and tougher. It will contain events and consequences unpredicted by Kohn or anyone else; but the British are likely to continue being a lucky lot. If there is reason to be alarmed, there is no reason to despair. For the rain (thank God), it raineth every day.
Andrew Marr is a BBC presenter and the author of ‘The Making of Modern Britain’ (Macmillan)