Climate change – could my warming cellar warn of a future struggle for survival?

Drying worldThe cellar in my old house has reached a wall temperature of 20 degrees. For the first time in 28 years, it is actually warm. My local climate has changed – does such climate drying warn of future human disaster, or is this too far-fetched?

13/08/2018. The climate change ‘is it?’ or ‘isn’t it?’ discussion has gone on for a long time, but for me the argument was decided last week. My cellar is actually warm!

Is the temperature of my cellar an objective measure of climate warming? No, it is a subjective one. But, based on personal experience and close observation over a long period of time, it is no less valid for that.

Let me put the statement in context. I live in an old house on the outskirts of Brussels. By Belgian standards it is a very old house, first built in 1900. I have lived in it for 28 years, which is a fair stretch of time to get accustomed to an environment.

Brussels’ climate is generally considered European coastal temperate. To you and me that means cool, with a fair amount of rainfall. And in the past we’ve been used to lots of rain, more so even than where I come from in the Thames Valley, which gets its share of precipitation.

Like all old houses in Belgium, this one has its share of problems. Which means, mainly, damp, partly from the rainfall which seems to penetrate whatever coverings the builders put up, but mainly from the ground. Because in this part of Flanders the soil is heavy clay, and due to the age of the building, there is almost certainly no damp-proof course.

When the house was built, what is now the basement was the kitchen, with its own open fire and massive washplace. I imagine a bit of damp in the walls wasn’t a problem when the rain was a constant. Then (before my time) someone decided to extend, and not very well, so that by the time I bought it in 1990 the problems were well-established.

But this is merely back-story. The point is that, no matter what the time of year, winter or the hottest of summers, the cellar is always cool. In past years I have even opened up the doors and windows on the hottest days of the year to let in some summer warmth. This year it has not been necessary. For the first time in 28 years, my 118 year-old cellar is actually warm.

Of course the heating has been off for months. And the living room with its high ceilings has had a comfortable temperature of around 25 degrees (32 degrees outside). But just downstairs, normally a haven of cool in the hottest of summers, it is warm. I measured the average wall temperature one afternoon at 21 – 22 degrees C. Even the coldest wall in the oldest part of the building measured 19.5 degrees.

For this house, such temperatures in the cellar are unheard of. Which tells me that the ground itself has given up much of its moisture to the overbearing sun. And since Brussels is built on what was once marshland, where the tendency has always been towards damp and rain, that drying represents significant change.

A drying climate

This change in the local climate has become obvious over the last decade. Less rainfall certainly, and longer, more predictable dry periods. Previously, the weather in any given summer would vary predictably from one day to the next. Sun one day, coolness and rain the next. Now it seems that Brussels’ previous temperate coastal climate is becoming more like that of an inland city.

But where I notice the drying climate most is in my garden, a semi wild little plot bordered on two sides by trees and neighbouring fields. It is, I have often thought, a little bit of paradise on the outskirts of the city. Not for me especially, but for the local wildlife, which includes red squirrels, foxes, bats and the occasional pine marten, as well as the neighbours’ cats (which are remarkably effective at limiting the local rat population).

But it has become drier. The lush undergrowth that threatened in previous years to overwhelm every border now struggles – like everything else in the garden. Lily of the Valley, once endemic, has gone. Nettles rule, but not as strongly as they used to do. And the moss and clover, like the grass, are burned brown.

This little patch of ground is wild because it has seen no chemicals in 25 years; I simply mow in the middle and trim round the edges. It has never needed watering, until now. Past summers saw the greenery thronged with miner bees, butterflies and dragon flies by August. This year, almost none. Even the bush crickets, a numerous and noisy arrival in recent years, are fewer in number.

What if this drying continues?

A drying climate seems at first sight to hold few fears for Brussels. Who does not enjoy a Mediterranean ambiance? Lunch on a city terrace in the Mediterranean-like sun can be enjoyable when you are accustomed to the constancy of grey skies.

But there are downsides. Brussels suffers from the air pollution caused by large numbers of vehicles. Without the rainfall to wash the air clean, pollutants from traffic linger in the environment (and cause more damage).

And if Brussels is to become like Lyon, what will Lyon be like in midsummer? I have read some of the prognoses. That London’s climate by 2050 could be the same as that of Marseilles today (“Turned Out Nice”, by Marek Kohn). And that to cope with such temperature change, Britain alone will have to radically rethink much of its environmental planning strategy. For Europe’s continental cities, the same lessons will apply, only perhaps more so.

Northern European lifestyles are predicted to become like those of the Mediterranean now, with people staying indoors in the day and emerging after the sun has gone down. Evenings would become the time of day to enjoy strolling the streets and talking to neighbours. Air conditioning will be essential for business, even in buildings where it is not already. And that means even more waste heat in the streets, as well as higher electricity consumption.

But these changes sound relatively mild. Why should we fear them? Because, in the main, we have not thought about their corollary, that while a drying climate would bring limited change to northern Europe, in the south it will be much more serious.

A drying climate in the hotter lands bordering the Mediterranean means even less rainfall, where shortage of water is already a problem. Up and down the east coast of Spain, in the summer many of the river beds are dry as they reach the sea, and this has been the case for over 20 years. Local people routinely protest about farmers in inland villages being short of water, while coastal developments are prioritised to encourage tourism.

In the past such protests have often been skirmishes driven by local rivalries, and usually solved by the arrival of autumn rains. But if the annual rebalancing of the water table brought by those rains were to cease, then farmers believe that the resulting water shortages would threaten the viability of their land for agriculture.

A grim prospect …..

If a drying climate would bring water shortages in the south of Europe, what of north Africa? Summer temperatures in much of Africa and southern Europe could become unbearable, and even make some regions uninhabitable.

The World Bank warned in 2016 that by 2050, water shortages would be endemic across Africa and Asia, worsening conflict and encouraging migration. A drying climate combined with population growth would see water availability in cities across Africa, the worst affected region according to the report, drop some two thirds by that date (High and Dry: Climate Change, Water and the Economy, World Bank).

In Libya, some 70% of the population, living around the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, depend on underground water that is already depleted to the point of being poisoned by sea-water from the Mediterranean. They now rely on ever-deepening bore holes in neighbouring countries, where over- extraction continues to reduce the height of the water table.

Yemen also has severe water-resource problems. Water for irrigation of crops (including drug crops) in and around the capital has driven wells that were only 30 metres deep in the 1970s down to 1,200 metres deep in order to maintain supply (The Impending Water Crisis in the MENA Region, George Joffé).

Syria, that once prosperous country, is now a disaster zone after nearly a decade of civil war. There is little doubt that the severe drought that afflicted the region between 2007 and 2010 played its part. People left their land for the cities in their hundreds of thousands, building slum tenements and laying fertile foundations for large-scale resentment of the state. So many actors have now been sucked into the conflict, for so many different reasons, that even the most informed commentators do not know when, if ever, the conflict will end.

The conclusions to be drawn from such widespread water shortage are inescapable. Without water, people cannot live. Cities do not function, and crops cannot be grown to supply food. As the situation worsens, much of the population in northern Africa and the Middle East will become even more desperate to escape.

If that is indeed the future, then the migration isues the EU is struggling with now will look like a storm in a teacup. We are not talking of one million migrants, but millions of people trying to leave a region that has become hostile to human, or any form, of life.

Some scientists are also warning of a kind of runaway climate change, the possibility that hitherto undiscovered feedback loops in the planetary system could accelerate these changes, tipping the balance away from expected (and to some extent planned for) change to a kind of rapid-drying scenario that would overwhelm mankind’s efforts to cope.

Europe, indeed the world in general, is ill prepared to cope with that eventuality. We are talking of a human disaster the scale of which is near impossible to imagine. Not only the total breakdown of effective government across a swathe of Africa, but the kind of mass migration that changes the character of neighbouring countries forever.

If the kind of disaster scenario pictured here were to become reality, then the world and its living conditions for most of the population would change to the point where little would matter, except survival.

A grim prospect? Most certainly. I don’t think that any of us have really taken into our consciousness the scale of change that a rapidly drying climate could force on the world over the next 30 – 50 years.

Will governments, societies even, be able to cope?

Are governments aware of the potential danger? Almost certainly. In Europe, the continued strengthening of FRONTEX and the introduction of new and more high-tech methods of border control are indicators. A fortress Europe protected by fences and high-tech border patrols is looking more and more likely every year.

Will Europe be able to cope? That is another question entirely. When you have human disaster on your doorstep, the instinct is always to help. But to accept numbers of people running into millions, the influx of which has the potential to destabilise your own society, is another story.

The old societies of western Europe face a potential for destabilisation the like of which has not been seen since the last war. But this time without the resources of a US Marshall Fund to help them recover. That such a threat may appear to be approaching only very slowly merely ensures that we fail to take its full implications into account.

But what alternatives are there? Full-scale acceptance of the population of north Africa into Europe? Such a move would not be countenanced by any European government.

Why? Not because of concerns about differing customs and the threat of culture change, but because Europe itself will be struggling to feed its existing population and maintain an ordered society. It is likely that water resources across Europe will already be stretched to meet demand.

This year already, farmers are warning of lower yields in arable crops due to reduced rainfall. Even in temperate Belgium, the country’s largest potato-grower has warned that this summer’s drought will multiply the cost of the Belgian staple, the humble potato, by a factor of ten.

Are governments planning to address the problem? I believe that they are, but prefer not to discuss it, deeming it as too sensitive at the present time. But if this is a sensitive subject, when will it be a good time to discuss it? Or is it too late now to make any decisions other than to man the fences?

A raw and brutal struggle for survival

Am I being unduly alarmist or pessimistic? I would be glad if it were so, that the climate changes I have witnessed are not indicators of a slow descent into an overheated world. And that any local drying is not a warning of resource shortages to come.

There is another possibility of course, that this summer’s temperature extremes are merely a temporary blip, and Europe’s climate will not change so much over the next 50-100 years. I would like to believe so, but unfortunately too many respected climate scientists say otherwise.

The prognosis for the future of the world we know today seems to be dire. And perhaps I welcome the fact that I will not be there to see it. But the children in my family might well be, and their children certainly so.

If they were to read this in the future, and ask what we should have done to stop it, I could not answer them. We did not have the knowledge just after the 1st World War, or even after the 2nd, to try and bring about a change in the course of human development, but that is when the decisions should have been made. What we are facing now appears to be nothing more than a raw and brutal struggle for survival.

PS. Just in case anyone is tempted to accuse me of writing scare stories that will encourage racism, know that I have thought long and hard about writing this piece, and for a long time did not want to publish it. I am well aware that stories like this can be used by right-wing groups to fuel a racist agenda. But I believe that this risk is more than outweighed by the sheer magnitude of the problems facing not only Europe, but most societies fortunate enough to inhabit the temperate north. And that only by being open about the risks and discussing them have we any chance of overcoming what is likely to be a supreme test to our ability to survive.

© Philip Hunt, 2018.

More information

Leave a Reply