What will a globally warmed Britain actually be like? Luke Jennings takes a stroll through the future
On the second page of Turned Out Nice, his projection of climate change in Britain, Marek Kohn tells the boiling frog story. Drop a frog into hot water, he writes, and it will jump out; put it in slowly warming water and it will allow itself to be boiled to death. The anecdote has been much aired in the past few decades, illustrating the dangers of inactivity when faced by, among other perceived dangers, the spread of world communism, the onset of mass immigration and the erosion of civil rights. The most recent figure to reheat the frog has been Al Gore, warning us about global warming.
The inconvenient truth, however, is that the story doesn’t hold water. George Zug, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the US National Museum of Natural History, has described it as “bullshit”, and in 1995 Debra Hofman, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, participated in an experiment with a pair of live frogs which, when moderate heat was applied, exited their pan with a leaps of 24cm and 57cm respectively.
Kohn, a sociological theorist who has written on evolution, racial science and drug culture, gives us between five and 10 years to jump out of the global warming pan. Britain’s current economic crisis, he says, is almost certain to militate against investment in low-carbon technology: there aren’t likely to be the funds for research and development, let alone implementation. He highlights the irony of the fact that while we “started” climate change, being the first to use coal to power industry, we will also be among the countries that will suffer least from it. Britain, he writes, is “insulated from what climate is really like” by the Atlantic. In the past its currents have swept a comforting warmth northwards from the tropics; now there are signs that these currents are weakening, and that Britain will enjoy the benefit of the cooling of the ocean surface. It’s this process which buys us those five to 10 years.
In a 2008 paper entitled “Tipping points in the earth system”, which Kohn draws on, the climate scientist Timothy Lenton identified a “political time horizon” and an “ethical time horizon” relating to global warming. The former, 100 years in the future, marked the probable limit of our forward planning (“Many people, including policy makers, struggle to consider the world beyond their own lifetime”), while the second, 1,000 years in the future, indicated where that limit should ideally be. In Turned Out Nice, Kohn considers the 100-year time horizon as regards Britain, and at certain junctures also attempts “the thousand-year stare”.
London, he predicts, will become “an urban heat island” by the end of the century. On sultry summer evenings the royal parks might host a paseo, a parade of the fashionable and nubile as presently performed “by smartly dressed families and keen youth” in southern Europe. The grass in the parks will be scorched and dry, however, and the nights sweaty, with air conditioning long banned on ecological grounds. An exploding population will lead, for many, to “superdense” living of the sort experienced in the poorer tenements of Naples or Marseille. Especially blighted areas will be occupied by climate refugees who work as servants for the propertied classes.
Life outside the cities will be less tense, for those who can afford it, although the fires which sweep the countryside whenever there’s a heatwave are likely to be a considerable deterrent. To live near the sea will continue to be the dream of many, but will entail new challenges. With the elements “whipped up and swollen by the gases emitted by human industry”, vast areas of coastline will be transformed into salt marsh – a fertile breeding ground for malaria. Elsewhere, a combination of summer drought and winter rain saturation will cause large-scale cliff erosion.
Those who visit such areas, toting rationed water, malaria tablets and sunscreen, will be subject to stringent movement controls, and confined to synthetic pathways. Wandering from these – every citizen’s location will be tracked via his or her mobile – will earn a reprimand. Failure to toe the line thereafter will be punished by a fine, removed electronically from the offender’s bank account. But the visitor may be rewarded, too, with exotic wildlife. “Above them now wheel birds with tones of sunrise in their plumage, somehow simultaneously a misty orange and a deep nimbus violet. These are purple herons, brought to the south coast by the growing warmth, following in the flight paths of the little egrets that settled a hundred years ago.”
In the Scottish Highlands, much of which Kohn anticipates will be pedestrianised, changes to fauna will be more dramatic, following closely managed “re-wilding” initiatives, which will see the reintroduction of beavers to rivers and lochs, and wolves and lynxes to the forests, where they will stabilise the deer population. The most privileged country dwellers will be those Kohn calls the “gnostocracy”. Knowledge will be the most desirable of all commodities, and those who refine and purvey it will form a new elite, living in settlements in areas of outstanding natural beauty. Rather than travelling to meetings – an expensive, inefficient, and time-consuming process – they will attend remotely, via telepresence.
Most people, however, will enjoy no such arcadian privilege. Rather, they will be faced by economic insecurity and the hectic, teeming life of the cities. Governments will offer little comfort and political parties will no longer exist. Their place, writes Kohn, in one of many darkly topical passages, “has been taken by transient factions that coalesce and fly apart like fish in a tank, coming together across nominal party lines to exploit opportunities and dispersing to take advantage of further opportunities. Some of these formations are showy, branding and marketing themselves like companies; others are shadowy and avoid the public eye.”
This is not a particularly easy book to read, nor does Kohn intend it to be. Its tone is sombre and its consistency dense. The character in its pages with whom Kohn most readily identifies, I suspect, is a Buddhist monk who spurns a mobile phone and strides “electronically naked” across the land. But the sheer volume of erudition that he brings to bear on his topic is itself a sign of hope. His pages and his 37-page bibliography are crowded with experts whose very existence argues against a wholly pessimistic viewpoint. Like Debra Hofman’s frogs, we may yet make it out of the pan. “The change myth assumes a very narrow view of people,” Hofman observed after the MIT experiment. “If frogs can do it, people definitely can.”