Heavy snow: bad luck or divine displeasure?

‘Extreme weather’ is not so much a scientific category as a cultural metaphor, expressing humanity’s anxiety about its place in the world.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics UK

It is snowing big time in my hometown in Kent, England. The family sits in front of the TV to discover whether there is more of the white stuff to come. However, instead of an informative weather forecast, we are offered a political broadcast.

A dramatic-sounding voiceover informs us that David Shukman, who is the BBC’s environment and science correspondent, will report on ‘how one of the longest cold snaps for a generation fits in with theories of a warming planet and global climate change’. Adopting a solemn tone that hints at catastrophes to come, Shukman announces that it is -15C in the Pennines where five cars are stranded, before stating: ‘No wonder many are asking “what about global warming?”’.

Just in case the cold temperatures encourage the British public to assume a degree of scepticism towards climate change alarmism, Shukman reassuringly informs us that the big freeze is not inconsistent with theories of global warming. There is a swift cut to a chap from Kew Gardens, who insists that ‘snowdrops are already blooming’; apparently flowering is starting much earlier than previously, which must mean that the world is getting very, very warm.

Concern that the current episode of cold weather might encourage scepticism towards apocalyptic climate change scenarios is not confined to the BBC. ‘Britain’s cold snap does not prove climate science wrong’, argue two climate-alarmist journalists in the UK Guardian.

Leo Hickman and George Monbiot helpfully inform their readers that ‘weather is not the same as climate, and single events are not the same as trends’. They are of course absolutely right but rather selective in the way they minimise the significance of a single weather event. A few years ago, when the temperature was relatively high and there was little rainfall over South East England, weather forecasters and campaigning journalists ignored the distinction between climate and weather and insisted that this was all a symptom of global warming. Indeed, unexpected rises in temperature are almost always presented as further evidence of bigger disasters to come; hot weather is frequently cited as proof of a foretold climatic doom.

Just in case you are a complacent sceptic, Hickman and Monbiot seize on an announcement made by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, which claims that the past 10 years are ‘officially’ the hottest since records began. Apparently a rise in temperature in Australia could have direct significance for those trying to make sense of harsh wintry conditions in the UK. Hickman and Monbiot speculate that the cold of the North and the warmth of the South ‘could be related’. It could be, yes – and no doubt their alarmist imaginations will have no problem in linking the two as different forms of ‘extreme weather’.

The term ‘extreme weather’ has become the new normal. ‘Extreme weather on the rise’, warns the website of the Australian Weather Channel. The website communicates a kind of helpless plea: ‘but our emergency response teams are under stress’, so ‘who is going to help you?’. This is really a rhetorical question that invites no answer.

‘Extreme weather’ is not so much a scientific category as a cultural metaphor, and one which expresses the anxieties of our time. The conceptual linking of the word ‘weather’ with the word ‘extreme’ speaks to a growing tendency to endow natural phenomena with moral meaning. We can no longer accept that, sometimes, harsh climatic conditions simply occur and freak weather just happens. As in ancient times, when superstition reigned, we interpret bad weather as a symptom of divine displeasure.

The term ‘extreme weather’ serves as a powerful cultural metaphor for humanity’s disquiet over its place in the world. That is why weather forecasting now uses dramatic language that continually hints at disasters to come. Weather forecasts serve as vehicles for projecting our existential anxieties into the future. Sometimes these forecasts resemble the predictions of the ancient Delphic oracle – they are self-consciously vague and open to conflicting interpretations. Often forecasts offer straightforward political statements and warnings about the dangers ahead. Either way, increasingly weather forecasting has become detached from its old job of simply providing disinterested information.

Today, unexpected weather conditions are blamed on human beings and their impact on the environment. In medieval times, unusual climatic episodes were seen as the handiwork of wicked demonic forces. Witchcraft was blamed for virtually every misfortune and unpleasant act. Indeed, the climatic change brought about by the so-called Little Ice Age in the sixteenth century led to a resurgence of witch-hunting in Europe. From 1380 onwards, accusations of magic and weather-making increased dramatically in inquisitorial trials. The resurgence of witch-hunting in the late sixteenth century was influenced by the belief that witches possessed demonic powers that could manipulate the climate in order to undermine the welfare and health of the communities in which they lived.

Throughout history people have sought to blame unusual climatic conditions on demonic forces. The association of witchcraft with weather-making accomplished one thing in particular: it mobilised people’s fears against the evil forces of heretics and non-believers. Scaremongering about witchcraft promoted the idea that its demonic powers could literally dominate nature. Father Friedrich Spee, a Jesuit critic of witch-hunting, noted sarcastically that ‘God and nature no longer do anything; witches, everything’. But such beliefs were no joke. A late winter in the province of Treves in the fifteenth century led to more than 100 people being burned at the stake.

However, since burning witches leaves a rather big carbon footprint, today we are likely to find more environmentally friendly ways of punishing those who transgress society’s confusing moral boundaries.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here. An edited version of this article was first published in the
Australian on 13 January 2010.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons pointed out that November’s floods in Cumbria were not the worst ever seen. Dominic Standish explained that people were not to blame for the earthquakes in Italy’s Abruzzo region. Frank Furedi looked at the changing perception of disasters, and observed that some commentators interpreted the 2007 floods in England as a punishment for our eco-sins. Josie Appleton talked of unleashing nature’s terror and of measuring the political temperature. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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