Fresh from the future predictions of $20 a Gallon, I thought I’d read something similar on climate change and round out the picture of where we might be going. That thought led me to Turned out nice: How the British Isles will change as the world heats up, by Marek Kohn, who starts with that most British of responses to climate change – ‘great, we could do with some warmer weather.’
Turned Out Nice is an exploration of the British landscape and how it will change, with different chapters focusing on specific places, such as London, the Yorkshire Dales, the Scottish Highlands. As well as showing the changes to local geography, each place is a springboard to look at wider issues, such as sea level rise, or drought. Sometimes the links are more obscure, with discussions leading off in unexpected directions. One begins with Sizewell nuclear power station on the Suffolk coast, ponders the fate of the migrating birds that nest there, and then follows them north to talk about Russian gas reserves under the Arctic ice.
It’s a rambling, conversational style that makes it an unpredictable read. It also means you can’t skip ahead through the longer descriptive or speculative bits, as there might be something really interesting right around the corner. A long passage on red kites for example, devotes rather too much time to the question of whether or not we’ll get bored of them as they become more common, but then there’s a fascinating section on conservation in the midst of it. Namely, whether climate change will force us to rethink the idea of native species. As the earth warms, we may find that we have to ‘import’ and relocate species in order to save them. Could Britain be a refuge for foreign species? It’s an idea that’s pretty counter-cultural to the conservation debate at the moment, which tends to focus of preserving or restoring an idealised country of the past.
Asking imaginative questions is Kohn ‘s strength here, translating the clearly vast amount of science behind the book into real-life scenarios for non-scientific readers. Will terraced houses become more desirable than detached houses when insultation becomes critical? Will our relationship with Spain be reversed, with the Spanish coming on holiday to England to escape the heat? Will we have to rename London’s Green Park if it’s no longer Green?
There is room for these kinds of questions, as this isn’t a gloomy book full of doom and dire consequences. Sitting in the ‘Atlantic shade’, Britain will be sheltered from the worst excesses of climate change, and its climate may actually improve. Although we will see water shortages, coastal erosion, and new parasites and agricultural pests, the biggest changes to life in Britain may well be social and political. If immigration is considered a problem now, imagine it in fifty years time, when many parts of the world are scarcely liveable. If living in Britain is more desirable, it may become even more densely populated, our cities denser to make them more efficient. That would mean economic benefits, but social challenges.
Escaping the worst of climate change brings problems of its own. Kohn point out that we might turn out to be “the envy of the world”, but that makes our international standing rather uncertain. “Britain was the country that started climate change, being the first to use coal to power industry, but by a quirk of history and geography, it will be among the countries that will suffer least from it.” How will we be perceived? If we might benefit from climate change, can be mobilise the will to prevent it for the sake of others? What will our moral obligations be to the rest of the world, particularly the poor? If we fail to take responsibility for our role in climate change, there’s a danger that “foreigners will see the islanders not as a nation of shopkeeprers but as a nation of spivs, profiteering from global crisis like blackmarket dealers in the Second World War.”
These are important questions that I haven’t really noticed before. Marek Kohn’s lateral thinking is a fresh perspective on the future of life in Britain, and it makes for refreshingly subtle and intelligent book on climate change.