Friday, October 21, 2005

A winter's tale

'Britain warned of worst winter in 10 years' reports the UK Daily Mail, after warnings from weather experts at the Met Office. Analysis of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) suggests that Britain could be exposed to colder winds than in recent years - bringing an increase in deaths, particularly among the elderly. London mayor Ken Livingstone has predicted the worst conditions since the bitter winter of 1962-63.

'An estimated 32,000 die every winter through lack of adequate heating - a figure which rises by 8,000 for every degree the temperature falls below the average', says the Mail.

There has also been speculation that Britain lacks sufficient fuel reserves to cope with prolonged cold periods, with suggestions that industry might have to shut down if stocks run low. The director of the Confederation of British Industry, Digby Jones, told the Mail: 'Businesses will have to close and that means people will lose their jobs. If it is cold this winter I promise we are going to run out of fuel and that is a disgrace.'

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that winter might be cold. While the hysteria about global warming needs to be treated with considerable scepticism, it is at least based on the idea that our climate will change dramatically and irrevocably in the future. This latest alarm seems to be based on fear of the normal variation of weather.

Despite the hype, it is by no means certain that it will be a cold winter. The Met Office can only say there is a 65 per cent chance of a colder-than-usual winter - which isn't much better than flipping a coin. This follows its prediction of a killer summer heatwave that failed to materialise. Knowing the unreliability of the Met Office's forecasts, the fuss seems to be based on an assessment by the weathermen that Britain isn't prepared. Is that really a judgement that meteorologists should be making?

It is true that Britain is notoriously bad at coping with winter weather, with gridlock ensuing at the slightest dusting of snow. But that is because it so rarely gets properly cold in our temperate climes. We make a pragmatic judgement that powerful domestic heating, thermal clothing and mass teams of road gritters are not worth the investment for the one or two weeks a year when the country freezes over. As it goes, there have been some signs of improvement. While it is hardly the first step on the road to social justice that chancellor Gordon Brown would have us believe, providing pensioners with an extra 200 each winter to cover heating costs should be sufficient to ease worries about fuel bills.

The speculation about fuel shortages seems to flow from the idea that we should be prepared for every possible bad scenario. Colder countries are wise to stockpile weeks of additional fuel, whereas a period of freezing weather lasting more than a week in the UK is exceptional. Do we really want to tie up millions of pounds in fuel reserves that are unlikely ever to be used, or spend a fortune on cold weather equipment that will gather dust for 50 weeks a year? There is no black-and-white answer to these questions, but the assumption that disaster is imminent seems utterly misplaced. There is an urgent need to discuss the future of energy in the UK - but terrifying pensioners isn't the way to do it.

The real lesson of the 'winter might be cold' panic is that we have less and less faith in our capacity as individuals and as a society to cope, even with quite ordinary problems. If anything is likely to bring society to a halt, it is this constant emphasis on our vulnerability, rather than a bit of snow.

Britain warned of worst winter in 10 years, Daily Mail, 19 October 2005