If you spent any amount of time getting high with political science undergrads in the last 15 years, you’re probably familiar with the boiled frog concept. The theory goes that a frog placed in boiling water will immediately leap out again, but a frog placed in tepid water before being slowly heated to boiling point will barely notice the change and, in true English spirit, die out of politeness rather than complain. Unfortunately, no less a figure than the Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians at Washington DC’s National Museum of Natural History made his position beautifully clear on the veracity of the theory: “Well that's, may I say, bullshit.”
Nonetheless, it’s proved to be a hugely expedient analogy in both political and psychological terms, with an irresistible climate change parallel; unsurprisingly, Al Gore borrowed it for his 2006 climate treatise An Inconvenient Truth. While the theory may not tell us much about amphibian cognition, it reminds us that climate disaster doesn’t necessarily start with Dwayne Johnson attempting to navigate a speedboat up the crest of a tsunami. It starts with a punch-up at a public swimming pool in southeast London.
According to reports, police had to be called to the scene at Brockwell Lido on Thursday 25th July, the day the UK set a new record for the hottest July day ever. “The owners of the venue are advising people not to come as there is a three-hour waiting time,” the Metropolitan Police stated, with reportedly 500 queuing for entry. Similar situations were reported from Bristol to Peterborough, though only Brockwell attained the levels of pandemonium required for the police to document “minor scuffles” in their description.
Part of the problem with this story is how easy it is to read as delightfully quaint, another uniquely British to-do. Lidos! Awfully long queues! Scuffles! Did one chap lose his temper because the person in front suggested the Nobbly Bobbly was just a poor man’s Fab?
As the planet continues to heat up, though, we shouldn’t be surprised to see public services getting hit first – and harder. The day after the lido story published, the Independent reported that over 100 flights to and from British airports had been cancelled, with several rail networks being affected in the process. Interestingly, the flights weren’t cancelled due to the extreme heat, but the thunderstorms that followed it.
We’d also do well to take heed that climate-related incidents affecting public services are already involving more umbrellas than parasols. The majority of last week’s weather warnings were concerning flooding, with the collapse of the Whaley Bridge dam believed to be one of the latest disasters attributable to rising water levels. Just this week, both Boardmasters and Houghton Festival were cancelled in the wake of severe weather warnings.
Beyond the damage caused at a local level, some are suggesting it’s a wake-up call to the UK’s terrifying lack of preparation for climate emergencies – and one that should be reaching Theresa Villiers, the government’s new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since July.
Bob Ward, a policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, certainly thinks so. “It is a warning to Villiers that she has got to put climate resilience at the top of the government’s list,” he told reporters following the dam’s collapse. “It is all very well worrying about Brexit, but without upgrading infrastructure we are going to suffer more and more grave consequences. If you delay on this, all you are doing is setting us up for disaster.”
MPs recently called on Villiers – who is notoriously pro-fracking, or at least unwilling to countenance a ban, and has a record of voting against carbon emission targets – to provide safeguards that the government will be held accountable on their environmental responsibilities after Brexit, something that is unlikely to appeal to new Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Much like the Trump administration in the US, it appears that such concerns are likely to be viewed more as a hindrance to commerce than a welcome challenge.
Much like the fabled boiling frog, it may prove to be the incremental damage that costs more than the disasters. The Mirror reports on a story, suitably both apocalyptic and mundane, that illustrates the need for imminent investment. “The Welsh village of Fairbourne could become the first in the UK to cause climate change refugees as resettlement plans are unclear,” the article declares. “Fairbourne is currently protected by a multi-million flood management scheme, but as sea levels continue to rise, its council is considering stopping the funding.” If this is instructive of future policy, the suggestions seems to be that we will be seeing more of the country abandoned than saved in the coming years.
We are sleepwalking into crisis. As the UK inevitably faces more heatwaves, floods, power cuts, and actual towns and villages abandoned to the sea, the question arises: when will it become important enough to act? Today it’s a scrap at the lido, but make no mistake: this is the bland face of public disaster, and by the time it looks like Mad Max out there, it’s going to be too late to take meaningful action. The frog will be boiled alive, the streets will run red with melted Rocket lollies, and we’ll still be sat here arguing about whether it’s worth offsetting our Ryanair flight to Berlin.
“I just can’t contemplate that this time last week we were sweltering in 34C heat,” one Whaley resident commented as homes were being evacuated following the dam’s collapse. Until we begin to accept that the problem isn’t unpredictable weather systems, but patterns of extreme heat and subsequent flooding that will prove to be a template of modern life in the 20s and beyond, it’s likely to become a familiar refrain.