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Elegy for a Country's Seasons

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There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising? People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: "The new normal." "It's the new normal," I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away-the new normal. We can't even say the word "abnormal" to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated.

What "used to be" is painful to remember. Forcing the spike of an unlit firework into the cold, dry ground. Admiring the frost on the holly berries, en route to school. Taking a long, restorative walk on Boxing Day in the winter glare. Whole football pitches crunching underfoot. A bit of sun on Pancake Day; a little more for the Grand National. Chilly April showers, Wimbledon warmth. July weddings that could trust in fine weather. The distinct possibility of a Glastonbury sunburn. At least, we say to each other, at least August is still reliably ablaze-in Cornwall if not at carnival. And it's nice that the Scots can take a little more heat with them when they pack up and leave.

Maybe we will get used to this new England, and-like the very young and recently migrated-take it for granted that April is the time for shorts and sandals, or that the New Year traditionally announces itself with a biblical flood. They say there will be butterflies appearing in new areas, and birds visiting earlier and leaving later-perhaps that will be interesting, and new, and not, necessarily, worse. Maybe we are misremembering the past! The Thames hasn't frozen over for generations, and the dream of a White Christmas is only a collective Dickensian delusion. Besides, wasn't it always a wet country?

It's amazing the side roads you can will yourself down to avoid the four-lane motorway ahead. England was never as wet as either its famous novels suggest or our American cousins presume. The weather has changed, is changing, and with it so many seemingly small things-quite apart from train tracks and houses, livelihoods and actual lives-are being lost. It was easy to assume, for example, that we would always be able to easily find a hedgehog in some corner of a London garden, pick it up in cupped hands, and unfurl it for our children-or go on a picnic and watch fat bumblebees crawling over the mouth of an open jam jar. Every country has its own version of this local sadness. (And every country has its version of our arguments, when it comes to causation. Climate change or cars? Climate change or cell phone sites?) You're not meant to mention the minor losses, they don't seem worth mentioning-not when compared to the visions of apocalypse conjured by climate scientists and movie directors. And then there are all those people who believe that nothing much is happening at all.

Although many harsh words are said about the childlike response of the public to the coming emergency, the response doesn't seem to me very surprising, either. It's hard to keep apocalypse consistently in mind, especially if you want to get out of bed in the morning. What's missing from the account is how much of our reaction is emotional. If it weren't, the whole landscape of debate would be different. We can easily imagine, for example, a world in which the deniers were not deniers at all, but simple ruthless pragmatists, the kind of people who say: "I understand very well what's coming, but I am not concerned with my grandchildren; I am concerned with myself, my shareholders, and the Chinese competition." And there are indeed a few who say this, but not as many as it might be reasonable to expect.    


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