A Point of View: Here comes the flood

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Russell Crowe as NoahImage source, Image net

A new film version of the Biblical story of Noah reminds us that concerns about climate change are nothing new, says Sarah Dunant - and neither is our response.

You couldn't make it up. Just as the sun comes out, Britain is about to be hit by another flood. Forget dredging, sandbags, even yelling at Environment Agency officers, this one is bigger than all of us. Fortunately, it takes place in a cinema.

I suspect when the movie men did their pitch for Noah, it sounded irresistible. We so love disaster movies and if the old stories are the best then what better than the Bible - extreme weather with a new environmental twist. As they cast around for an actor who would relish a few abrasive encounters with God (Russell Crowe seems a perfect choice), I doubt they gave much thought to the religious lobby. But since all publicity is good publicity, the Islamic objection against impersonating a prophet revered in the Koran, and the conservative Christian one that you shouldn't mess with the message will do them no harm. It has already produced a film with the unique disclaimer that instead of being based on a true story, this one is based - only based, mind you - on a biblical one.

The flood, according to the Book of Genesis may be the earliest story of man's bad behaviour causing climate change, but it's far from the only one: "The heaven which is over your head shall be bronze, and the earth which is under you iron" (Deuteronomy 28). Smiting through drought, rains and storms… When it comes to weather as God's favoured tool of judgement, the Bible is, well, the Bible.

For those of us convinced by current scientific evidence of climate change, these stories have nothing to do with what's happening now. Of course not everyone who is sceptical is religious - indeed a recent survey by American religious groups showed that people's views were as likely to be predicated on politics as faith. But there certainly are believers - who see extreme weather as divine judgment. Indeed, we recently witnessed the perfect marriage of religion and politics with the UKIP councillor who saw the recent floods as God's retribution against David Cameron for allowing gay marriage.

Image source, PA

At the risk of offending both sides, it is interesting to note how much they have in common. For both science and religion, extreme weather is a warning - in the most secular of meanings, a prophecy of what is to come. For both, at root, the cause is human behaviour - for believers, chronic moral breakdown stemming from denial of what they see as the laws of God. In the eyes of science, a different transgression - our plundering and using of the planet's resources in ways dangerous to it, and our, well-being, with a certain whiff of moral criticism in there (selfishness, profit, even greed). Then there is the outcome. Without action in either case we are looking at something akin to the end of the world as we know it.

Humans have long flirted with the notion of an apocalypse and since our basic existence depends so powerfully on climate, it's not surprising the two have been connected. But if we're looking for a more nuanced understanding of how climate change impacts on human life, there is one period within recorded history that offers some powerful lessons. We've known for some time that the 17th Century was in many ways a catastrophic one for humanity. Years of droughts in Africa and the Americas were followed by winters so severe that in Europe rivers became regular market places and it was possible to walk to Asia across a deep frozen Bosphorus. From the 1650s to the 1690s the severity of weather was such that climatologists have dubbed it the little ice age. Along with famine, pestilence, war, it's estimated that a third of human life was wiped out.

Image source, Museum of London
Image caption,
The Thames frost fair of 1684

That much we knew. But last year saw the publication of a book which looked more directly at the role of weather in that century.

Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the 17th Century, by the British historian Geoffrey Parker, is a stonking work of scholarship. Erudite and exhaustively researched - the book weighs as much as a small sandbag - it amasses and analyses vast amounts of global data, from first-hand accounts to archaeological remains, to Stradivarius violins made from trees grown in this period where the rings show the impact of shorter growing seasons. Parker's argument is that while climate was not the sole cause of global crisis it was a powerful trigger. While communities might survive one failed harvest, two or more in a row threatened famine, which in turn could unleash pestilence and plague and massive social disruption. Rulers, backed by the concept of divine right, cared less about their subjects suffering than pursuing their own ambitions through wars and the taxes that financed them. When life became unbearable, as it did, there were revolts and rebellions.

But in the midst of it all, people also started thinking about climate in ways they hadn't before. In Lucerne in Switzerland in 1614, a botanist and archivist noted that "the years have shown themselves to be more severe than in the past with the disruption of living things, not only mankind and the animal world, but also earth's crops and produce". He starts recording weather as "a service and favour to future generations".

When it comes to the cause of the trouble, not surprisingly he points the finger at humankind, "on account of our sins". Across Europe the sins were generally familiar ones. Protestant Nuremberg was incensed by sodomy, adultery and dancing. Nearby Catholics in Bavaria singled out women wearing skirts that showed their knees, and joint bathing. The devil too had his place. After May 1620 saw arctic temperatures in southern Germany, 900 men and women were accused and executed for witchcraft.

Image source, SPL
Image caption,
17th Century Italian woodcut illustration depicting two witches setting fire to a town

But early thinkers also looked further afield. The old chestnuts of stars, eclipses and comets were mentioned, though not without some scepticism and argument as to how these events could possibly cause such catastrophes. There were studies of sun spot activity - which reduced dramatically during this century, and the phenomenon of "dust veils" in places as far afield as Spain and Korea where for weeks the sun was obliterated by thick red or yellow air. Cause and effect came together for a Spanish garrison in the Philippines in 1640 when the impact of a volcanic eruption turned day to night so "they could not see their own hands before their eyes."

Through both of these phenomena (there were 16 big eruptions within six years) scientists can now explain some elements of 17th Century climate instability and global cooling.

In one way though, the problems of that century were not that dissimilar to our own. What was called for was the changing of man's behaviour, moral rather than environmental. Except rather than getting better, things got worse. Of course. Hunger, famine, disease and the brutality of constant war - murder, torture, plunder, rape, even cannibalism - all this further degraded moral standards. In theory Christianity should have had a role in controlling behaviour - the carrot of everlasting bliss and the stick of eternal agonies of hell - but when push came to shove, it seems obedience to God's laws was quickly eroded.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Polluted Paris, March 2014

Bring that up to date and what do we find? Many of us believe (I use the word deliberately here) that unchecked, climate change will bring disaster, if not in our own lifetime then in lives to come. The answer? Change our behaviour. Yet how seriously are we doing that? When it comes to even minor reductions in levels of comfort - giving up flying, or even swapping the car for the bus or the tube, we drag our heels. Our rulers (no longer the capriciousness of divine right) are not doing much better. Given the prospect of falling profits for multinationals, substituting growth for sustainability, and risking short term unpopularity at the polls, no government seems willing to withstand the heat. Get them all round the table at a global summit and they're even worse.

Meanwhile, this week the air in Paris was so polluted that they started banning cars with odd and then even numbers (a 17th Century necromancer would be enthralled) and the UK is being taken to court by the EU for disastrously failing to meet emission cuts of nitrogen dioxide in its cities. Shame, it seems, went out along with sin.

In such a world it was its own small miracle when last month David Cameron, amid moans from his own party uttered the words, "I agree we are seeing more abnormal weather. Colleagues across the House can argue about whether that is linked to climate change or not. I very much suspect that it is."

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Russell Crowe and Logan Lerman in a scene from Noah

A small step for man, but possibly not a giant leap for mankind. I am wondering if the arrival of Noah might, after all, be of some use here. A leader who must ignore the sceptics and take powerful unpopular action to save the planet has to have real backbone to see it through. Maybe it's not just Russell Crowe who needs God's voice in his ear.

A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 GMT. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

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