Now climate change, like starving children, is generally a cause that the British prefer to empathise with when it happens on foreign, rather than domestic, soil. So we lament the loss of coral reefs; the rising sea level in the South Pacific; and we watched on TV as California burned and Australia experienced its warmest August, a record-breaking winter heat wave. But do we really have any idea what is happening in the most beautiful remote bits of our own backyard?
The lesson of this summer is that we are ignoring what is happening under our noses. If this summer is not an aberration, then it would appear that western Britain is under the cosh too; a kind of stealthy, watery Armageddon.
And if this is indeed the future, then the issue is more urgent than any of us realised. Many of us, inhabitants on both sides of the wet/dry divide, who are by instinct rather non-warmist, must now accept that the Atlantic lows are not only more frequent but have permanently shifted south. Certainly there seems an acceptance among scientists that the number of Atlantic hurricanes has doubled over the past century. One study, from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, concluded that warmer sea temperatures and altered wind patterns associated with climate change are fuelling the increase. And sea temperatures on Britain’s West Coast are indubitably rising.
If all this is correct, British delegates at the Copenhagen climate change summit in December should consider the pressing implications for tourism, agriculture, food security, health and public spending in Britain.
Take roads, for instance. In Scotland alone, one fifth of the main network has been identified as at risk of landslides, with extreme storm rainfall predicted to increase by between 10 and 30 per cent by the 2080s. On Monday, in Argyll, part of a mountainside supersaturated with rain collapsed on to a trunk road, effectively cutting off a vast swath of the county. Exactly the same thing happened, on the same stretch of road, in 2004 and 2007. It will take diggers weeks, possibly months, to stabilise the hillside and clear the road. The lesson: climate change is going to be hugely expensive, especially in rural and remote areas.
Today, we’re at the point where, scarily, the land simply can’t take much more rain. There is the sense that, as Scotty cried in Star Trek: “The engines cannae take it, captain.” Everywhere you go, there is the stink of rot. Timbers are swollen; doors stick; the ground, so engorged it can absorb no more, heaves beneath your feet. All we need is Harrison Ford to appear and we would have confirmation that we are trapped on the set of Blade Runner. As nothing else could, life in the West this summer has fulfilled Ridley Scott’s apocalyptic vision of climate change: perpetual rain, perpetual darkness.
Biblical portents abound. Toads claw at night at the back door, looking, I fear, for somewhere dry to go. Small creatures are drowning and dying. Those that can fly away have done so: the eaves are empty, the normally prolific swallows having disappeared weeks before their normal time. Fruit is dropping, half formed and rotting, on to lawns too wet to walk across, let alone cut.
Out of pity, one avoids intruding on the private grief of those who have to make their living outside. Farming is devastated. With dairy cows already housed inside, two months earlier than usual, and thousands of pounds worth of hay and grain lying rotting in sodden fields — unreachable, even if it stopped raining, by mechanical means — many farmers are desperate. In Cumbria the ground will be too soft to bear the weight of a combine harvester any time between now and Christmas.
We have cultivated a mordant pessimism. “Not raining shock” we say, peering from the window in the morning. We know by lunchtime it will have started again. We disembark from flights to London feeling as if we have travelled a thousand miles to a different continent: one where it does not rain and people wear summer clothes.
We in the west, at Worcester, seem to have been invisible to the rest of the UK. This is the 3rd summer in a row where the sun has been almost absent, in an area which I have always thought of as something of a sun trap. If it's not raining, then dark gloomy clouds hang perpetually overhead. Even my greenhouse tomatos are suffering.
In the last year, in the same way that you can look at the rings in the trunk of a tree and see the weather conditions over each year for hundreds of years, we can look at a stem of Cannas and by examing each leaf we know what the weather conditions have been over the months. We started out with some good foliage in May and early June, but then the sun vanished and we went for months with not enough light in many cases to allow our Cannas to even unfold their new leaves, so we have had to assist this most basic function. The energy to unfold Canna leaves comes only from sunlight.
Foliage from that period is a disaster, we have some leaves that never achieved even half of their photosynthesis capability and their foliage varies from pale yellow overall to striped green and various shades of yellow. In some cases the incessant rains have washed away much of the wax cuticle that protects the leaf from rain. I have very rarely seen this happen before in the twenty years that I have grown Cannas.
So far, in the second week of September, we have collected seed from 6 plants out of 230 plants! Why such a pathetically low number? Pollen only stays fertile for a few hours and rain quickly dissolves its potential. We have had our potential seeds washed away by rain. This is not a figment of imagination, it is a hard fact!
Of course, if the doom mongers took a look at our Canna collection they would immediately condemn it as being totally devastated by virus, and the more inexperienced would come up with such trite statements as "if it looks like virus, then it's virus". In the west of England we don't need friends like this. We have enough problems to contend with, without having to contend with self-opinionated amateurs with no scientific knowledge.
We need another year like 2006 when we can get good growth from our Cannas and establish which have virus and which are stressed by abnormal weather conditions. In the meantime we can only keep growing and keeping the plants we are sure are virus-free separate from the rest of the collection, and keeping the virus suspects totally isolated from the rest.
Ironically, some of the suspects have come from the homes of those who consider they have totally virus free collections. Once these specimens leave their glass house environments and hit the west country weather conditions they betray their inherent problems. Those problems are not necessarily virus, just the problems of sub-tropical plants trying to exist in an ever-more disturbed temperate-critical climate.