This article first appeared in http://www.scottishpolicynow.co.uk
By the time you read these words ; I will have retired from the Met Office after an eventful forty years. Throwing off the yoke of usefulness can be a great relief, and it does leave a lot of time for pondering the future, so herewith some thoughts.
Whether it is looking a few days ahead or a century, meteorologists and climate change scientists spend their time and effort mapping the future. I am sure you all have an opinion on how successful our efforts are but I also wonder if you are of aware of just how important it is. In the society we have created for ourselves there is almost nothing we do, day or night, that isn’t impacted by the weather. Bah humbug! I hear you retort. Well the evidence will out.
Before your alarm goes off in the morning you have probably used at least two weather forecasts. The amount of gas and electricity used on a weekday morning is driven very much by the ambient air temperature. A lower temperature than forecast and your supplier may have to buy gas and electricity on the spot market which is more expensive than well planned generation and supply. Similarly if the forecast is much to low then this can lead to a glut and falling profits. 1 & 2
Think then of the muesli you are about to consume. The farmers who supply the manufacturers of the product also need to understand the weather. They do not want to waste their time and money spraying crops if the rain will wash away the fertiliser or pesticide before it has had a chance to do its work. Make hay while the sun shines and the dairy herd will be well fed in the winter so your milk for the cereal is readily available and relatively cheap. And the supermarket, where you bought the product, may well use a weather forecast to predict how much lettuce to buy for the weekend or whether it needs more soup and less salad because the forecast is wet, cold and windy. All this and more ensures the only decision you have to make before leaving the house is whether to take a brolly or not. A quick look out the window may help, but the TV weather forecast will let you know if you will need it later.
All this of course before we even consider the impact of severe weather on the overall resilience of the country and its ability to keep calm and carry on. Flooding, storms, landslides, coastal erosion, volcanoes, ice, snow, power cuts, cancelled trains, no fly zones, closed roads. Car accidents, overloaded A&E departments, missed appointments, a poor barley harvest, livestock disease; I could go on but you get the picture. Nothing is immune to weather and it is expensive. E.g. the total economic cost of the summer 2007 floods to the UK are estimated at about £3.2 billion in 2007 prices, within a possible range of between £2.5 billion and £3.8 billion. 3 This is not small change.
What then of climate change. The IPCC AR5 Report 4 was pretty unequivocal – Anthropogenic Climate Change is happening and we are not doing enough to stop it. The implications for our planet are enormous and it is the poorer countries of the world that will bear the brunt of it. For Scotland too the implications are clear; our climate has changed and will continue to change for the foreseeable future. The Scottish Government’s commitment to carbon reduction 5 is a powerful incentive to change the way we function. However the global impact of Scotland’s carbon reduction, no matter how large, will be minimal.
I would suggest that for the wellbeing of all adapting to the new and changing world climate is crucial; an easy thing to say, much harder to achieve. L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” and many of our decisions, big and small are based on our past experience. This needs to change; farming practices must be updated to take into account the new extremes of weather. The design of our water and sewage system which was adequate for the historic climate needs to be extensively remodelled to cope with the new. Our ports and harbours will be required to cope with rising sea levels and our fishing industry with increasing sea temperatures and species migration. 6 Doom and gloom – well yes and maybe that suits the Scottish character. But we’ve also seen longer growing seasons, reduced winter mortality and, most of the time, lower winter fuel usage. So while I think it is unlikely we will see grapes growing in Grangemouth or Aberdeen become the new Algarve there are tremendous opportunities available to us.
The banking and insurance industries are already taking account of climate change in their planning. I saw this headline late last year, No climate-change deniers to be found in the reinsurance business 7 and in the New York Times Business Day, For Insurers, No Doubts on Climate Change. 8 Any internet search of “Insurance and Climate Change” will return hundreds of thousands of similar articles.
Scotland’s own 2020 Climate Group, led by Ian Marchant former Chief Executive of SSE, is working to inform businesses large and small of the need for change and how to do it. Every local authority in Scotland has made a carbon reduction commitment. Adaptation Scotland and the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation are leading the charge to engender new thinking and methods of coping with climate change; all is not lost.
So, before you finish your breakfast consider your morning coffee. Even without milk or sugar, it takes ninety thousand litres of water to grow then process and deliver one kilogram of coffee. It takes one kilowatt hour of electricity to make a single cup. 10
What difference will climate change make to you?