Take the rising temperatures in Britain over the past two decades, which culminated in a record 40 degree Celsius at Coningsby in Lincolnshire. It is undoubtedly true that all of the UK’s 10 warmest years on record have happened in the past 20 years. But what is striking is that during this period there has been no accompanying increase in the kind of fires we saw in Wennington – even in Greater London, which is the hottest, most populous area in the UK.
Quite the opposite. As the Spectator notes, between 1966 and 2008 there were more than 30,000 fires in Greater London, peaking in 1976 when there were nearly 64,000 fires. Since 2008, the number of fires recorded in London has fallen dramatically, with just 15,000 in 2021.
Even grass fires, which one would expect to be on the rise given the hotter, drier climate of the past two decades, have actually been in decline in Greater London. As the London Fire Brigade puts it, the number of grass fires in Greater London is ‘significantly lower [today] than a decade ago’. Indeed, grass fires peaked in 2003 and have fallen 83 per cent since then. Which is hardly a sign that we are heading towards a future of annual wildfires and burnt-out houses.
This contrast between the catastrophising of our cultural and political elites and a rather more mundane reality is borne out globally. We hear constantly about ‘extreme’ weather events. We hear endless talk of the rise in natural disasters caused by manmade climate change. Our house is on fire, says Greta Thunberg relentlessly. It certainly feels as if the world has entered a period of ever-more dangerous natural instability.
Yet the statistics tell a very different story. As Michael Shellenberger noted in his 2020 book Apocalypse Never, there has been ‘a 92 per cent decline in the decadal death toll from natural disasters since its peak in the 1920s’. Back then, 5.4million people died from natural disasters. In the 2010s, just 400,000 did.
Sontag’s analysis of the apocalyptic imagination, which she witnessed emerge during her own lifetime, is as invaluable now as it was then. She didn’t dismiss or ‘deny’ the facts from which the apocalyptic visions drew their dark inspiration. AIDS really was a terrible disease. Heavy industry really could cause instances of environmental degradation. And no doubt the climate could be warming.
What she critiqued was the apocalyptic extrapolation. This means that any challenge or problem we face, when refracted through the apocalyptic imagination, is presented in terms of the catastrophe to come. Every scientifically observable change in nature is, via ever more sophisticated modelling, transformed into a future end-of-days event. This is less a scientific procedure than a creative, metaphorical one, transforming one thing into something else. As she put it: ‘Every process is a prospect, and invites a prediction bolstered by statistics. Say: the number now… in three years, in five years, in 10 years; and, of course, at the end of the century. Anything in history or nature that can be described as changing steadily can be seen as heading toward catastrophe.’
Think of anti-pollution measures introduced in Western societies over the past couple of centuries. Excessive smoke and smog wasn’t in the past treated as a symbol for something else – as a warning sign or punishment or the occasion for a Just Stop Burning Things protest. It was simply treated as a practical problem to be solved. Which it was.
So it is with a potentially warmer climate. Whatever problems it throws up, there is a sober, resilient approach we can take. This is no easy task, of course. It requires us, as societies, to re-orient ourselves in relation to the future, and also in relation to the past. It requires recovering and revitalising the Enlightenment ideals we have repudiated, too often in the name of environmentalism. Only by re-embracing reason, science and progress will we have the wherewithal to face the uncertainty of the future with a degree of confidence. Perhaps then we can finally stop catastrophising about climate change and start treating it as a challenge we can overcome.