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England: a Dusting of Snow, a Climate of Chaos

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I went to bed last night with Oxford covered in a thin, quiet blanket of snow. I woke up to find the country in chaos.

The Telegraph ran a headline saying, "Britain paralyzed by worst snowfall for 20 years." Meanwhile, the usually reserved Times of London reported: "Chaos after huge snow blanket hits UK." The Guardian followed suit: "England wakes up to snow chaos."

I read these headlines with the shades still drawn. Outside my windows, where usually birds signal the shift from the gloom of England's night to the grayness of its days, there were students trilling about the snow. I threw open the window and found not a blanket of snow, but streets mostly black but for pockets of white and a chill in the air. So little snow, I thought, for so much disruption.

And so I took the streets. Experience bore out the papers. Many of the businesses along Turl Street -- one of the quiet streets that typify Oxford, its pubs, clothiers and nested Colleges -- were closed, or just opening, at 10am. At Walter's barbershop, the conversation was about the snow. Over the radio, reports of commuting difficulties were read aloud, seemingly without end.

Once at home, emails came in, and status updates all read the same: "Snow day." "Can't make it to the office, working from home." It all reminded me of a section from Sarah Lyall's wonderful book The Anglo Files. In discussing the difficulties of the trains here, she recalled the following headline from The Evening Standard: "Inch of Snow Causes Chaos."

For a boy from New England, this all seemed like a rather lot of hoopla about nothing. A few weeks ago, my father woke up to find a nearly an inch of snow on the ground. He cleared the drive way and, upon getting into his car, found his usual route blocked by fallen power lines. Finding his other route blocked by a fallen tree, he drove an extra 10 miles and made his way into the office. This was neither routine nor extraordinary; it was simply the weather, and he had a car.

Today was much the same; to me, it was simply the weather, and beautiful weather at that. But to this country, it was enormously disruptive.

The airports were closed, sealing England off from Europe, if not the rest of the world. The closures on the underground were comprehensive; only the Victoria line was reported to be running "in good service." In this country, however, that phrase could mean nearly anything.

Following The Guardian's declaration of chaos, came the equally dramatic headline announcing that the "Cost of arctic weather could top £1bn." According to the paper, "The Federation of Small Businesses estimated this morning that one-in-five workers will fail to reach work today, at a cost of £1.2bn."

Granted, the snow was the most England has received in 18 years. But that trend is consistent with 2008, the coolest year since 2000. A generation shouldn't always prepare a nation for a once a generation event. But weather is never a day in isolation; it's a constellation of global trends with local effects. Today, then, was a cold dip following a cool year on an otherwise warming planet. Today was more than a day; it was a model of what the world has seen this past year, and what England might see again. As such, it raises some important point, and questions, about climate change.

First, that climate change does not mean uniform global warming. A changing climate is a volatile one. The IPCC and others predict that weather patterns will not only warm, but will move towards their natural extremes. For England, that may mean more of today's weather in the centuries to come.

Second, that countries are still subject to the unpredictable whim of the weather. Consider England's productivity losses today. Climate change will risk, as England Sir Nicholas Stern famously said, a significant decline in economic productivity.

Third, it raises questions about adaptive capacity. England is, despite its sometime appearance as a post-industrialized country (again, nod to Lyall), is in a position of global affluence. Its standard of living, and its productivity, is high. Despite all of this, all it took was a little snowfall to cause a major economic and social disruption. This certainly can't bode well for developing countries, whose adaptive capacities are significantly lower.

Finally, the issue of adaptation is most often discussed over centuries. But today's snow, and much larger, more devastating events like Katrina and the 2004 tsunami, raise the question of non-linear climatic changes. What about climatic changes that occur within the period of decades, not centuries? And what of the extreme events that occur an otherwise sloping trend? How will we adapt? If today's events are any indication, the transition will not be painless.

To a large extent, some of these problems are peculiar to England's constitution. Its weather is consistently poor, but rarely terrible. The only thing regular about the trains are their delays. Throughout the 20th century, England suffered such ignominies in proud silence. But not today.

The snow was too much, their preparedness too little. For this New England boy, the headlines wrote the pathos of the Old World. As a friend of mine observed, "No wonder we lost the empire."

This post was originally published on On Earth's Greenlight.

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