The snow has gone now, but for a few days it was as if our city was in lockdown. When a human being’s physical environment changes so drastically, so quickly, it is not unusual to feel all kinds of emotions, discombobulated and out of touch being just a couple. Though being cut off from our day-to-day routines and the faces we are used to is disconcerting, amongst all this there lies a prospect more terrifying. This is the idea of a permanent and radical shift in the physical environment, which fundamentally changes our lives. Imagine if the streets you walk down every day, and the buildings in which you eat, sleep, work and read, never looked the same again.
That is what it felt like in Edinburgh with the onset of the ‘Beast from the East’. Normal life was paralysed. Economic activity became pretty much impossible; the chance to study and learn was temporarily put on hold. Yet, in our cold and windswept corner of the developed world, we can afford an interruption like this. Scotland, for the most part, enjoys a standard of living which is the envy of the world. Not all are so lucky.
Hysteria has no place in the climate debate. Thick-headed remarks like ‘tut-tut, must be climate change’ whenever the weather changes drastically are unhelpful, because they confirm the deniers of man-made climate change with their implicit scepticism.
Yet the issues are increasingly scary. For millions of people worldwide, climate change represents a permanent and disruptive change to their physical environment: their lives will never be the same again. Whether it’s desertification in the Sahel, or intense flooding in Bangladesh, the fact remains that there are people in the world who will, and are, feeling the full force of climate change now. They are the first to feel the consequences of our dirty path to prosperity; it is they who will suffer for modernity’s crime.
Perhaps the recent spurt of unusual weather in our city was a wake-up call, a reminder that for thousands, if not millions, a drastic and alienating shift in their physical environment is very much in the pipeline. The snow and the subsequent reality-shift that we all suffered, whined and complained about in fact gives us a chance to feel empathy. Empathy for those who will truly suffer, a unique chance to place ourselves in the shoes of those whose futures are uncertain, and whose homes and livelihoods are endangered. It is unlikely we will find ourselves actually in their position for some time to come, and so perhaps the three-day shutdown of our way of life was, so to say, timely.
Whatever the case, our way of life can survive an interruption. The snow soon melted away, leaving giant, solid clumps of muddy ice by the road side; lingering reminders of the natural world’s power to disrupt, destroy and paralyse. Let’s not go back to business as usual. Let’s use this chance we have been given to imagine, to empathise and to change the way we live accordingly. The natural world is ultimately stronger than the designs of men, but helping those people whose world will soon be put on hold is not out of reach, it is very much within our hands. We know what to do, so let’s do it.
Image: Andrew Perry