He walked into the lobby of the Dublin hotel like it was a saloon in the Wild West. His eyes, the grey of an Irish sky, swept the room. There were nearly a dozen people in the large, sculpted concrete lobby, but his gaze immediately settled on a woman with short brown hair, the square-shouldered, narrow figure of a swimmer and the face of someone who lived a healthy outdoors lifestyle, but who didn’t tan well. She was dressed in jeans and a blood-red waterproof jacket.
The man nodded to himself and walked over, casting a glare around in a manner which suggested that, at any moment, someone might ask him to step outside for a gunfight, and he was born ready for it, goddammit. He was tall, with a powerful build, tight cut dark hair and a handlebar moustache attached to a broad, chiselled face. His left eye sported a mottled purple bruise that spread over the side of his face. There was an unlit cigar gripped between his teeth. He was wearing cowboy boots, jeans and a black Cordura jacket, the type bikers wore, with the armour sections for protecting your spine, elbows and shoulders.
‘Doctor Mayer?’ he asked the woman in a flat Dublin drawl.
‘Yes. I’m Hilde, hello,’ she said, picking up her laptop case and smiling as she stood up to shake his hand.
Her English was fluent, with the clipped consonants of a faint German accent. His grip on her hand was overly firm, but felt like it could go a lot firmer. He took his cigar from his mouth.
‘Jack Brennan,’ he replied. ‘Met Éireann.’
He declared the name of the country’s national weather service as if it was the Royal Marines or the Navy Seals. Perhaps it was to be expected, given what she’d heard about Met Éireann, but she was still somewhat taken aback. Meteorology attracted a few gung-ho types, but they normally found their way to the US to chase tornadoes or flew airplanes into hurricanes or sought out other forms of freakishly violent weather. Ireland’s weather had grown more turbulent over the last few decades, but Met Éireann’s reputation as a nest of adrenaline junkies had always mystified her.
‘Do you mind me asking . . . were you mugged?’ she asked, gesturing to his black eye.
‘Ha, no! Just caught flat-footed!’ he laughed. ‘I was in the cage . . . y’ know, UFC? Mixed martial arts? I was sparrin’ last night and got smacked with a bleedin’ good one.
‘Oh,’ Hilde said quietly. ‘It looks like it hurts.’
‘Stings like holy Jaysus when I touch it,’ Jack said, grinning around the cigar as he led her towards the door. ‘Anyway, I’m your lift to HQ. Hope you like bikes!’
He wasn’t kidding. It was a big Harley, black and chrome and wide as a horse, parked diagonally to take up a full parking space. Jack swung his leg over it and kick-started the engine, which coughed out a deep, guttural growl. He pulled on an open face helmet – worn, apparently, so he could smoke his cigar as he rode, for he’d lit up as soon as they walked out the door of the hotel. Donning a pair of shades, he handed her a full face helmet, an expression in his eyes that suggested this would be a telling moment. She hesitated for just a moment, than accepted it, putting down her laptop case so that she could use both hands to put the bulky helmet on.
‘I didn’t recognize you there,’ he said as Hilde did the clasp on the helmet strap and then slung her case over her shoulder. ‘The picture we have of you showed you with long hair and glasses an’ all, y’know? If it wasn’t for the anorak, I’d have walked right past you.’
‘The anorak?’ she asked.
‘The waterproof jacket,’ he barked over the revving engine as they took off across the car park. ‘You were the only one in the lobby who looked like a tourist. The Irish don’t wear anoraks.’
She glanced down reflexively at her red jacket.
‘But it rains here all the time!’ she shouted over his shoulder, leaning with him as he swung round a corner.
‘Exactly!’ he called back.
They hardly spoke for most of the ride, because of the noise. The cigar smoke in her face smudged out the traffic fumes they rolled through. Jack drove a bit too fast, but he handled the bike well. If he expected her to be unnerved, he’d be disappointed. Hilde had owned a bike when she was in college. It was an old Honda, nothing close to the size of this beast, but she was quite comfortable as a pillion passenger, though there were some white-knuckle moments as Jack negotiated the chaotic Dublin traffic. The ground was wet from rain and Hilde’s expert eye read the cumulus clouds developing into cumulonimbus and knew there was more rain to come. She wondered what Jack had meant when he said the Irish didn’t wear anoraks.
‘The river’s flooded the quays again,’ Jack informed her, swerving round an SUV. ‘It’s causin’ havoc in town. I’ll have to swing round a different way.’
Hilde’s hands tightened around his waist as he gunned the engine and they roared down a side street, the gravelly engine echoing off the buildings either side of them. Hilde’s boss back in Deutscher Wetterdienst – Germany’s national meteorological service – had told her that a stint with Met Éireann would do good things for her career. It was said that if you could work there, you could work anywhere. She still didn’t understand why that should be. Ireland was defined by a climate that was milder than almost anywhere else in Europe. It wasn’t like they suffered many extreme heat-waves or freezing winters, though the instances of both of these had increased over the years. What was it about this place that made her colleagues regard it with such awe?
The building that housed Met Éireann’s headquarters was located in Glasnevin, an area of north Dublin. It was a striking structure, unlike any other Hilde had seen in the city, its bunker-like, sloping sides and the array of dishes on the roof giving it an appearance that was a cross between something from East Berlin and something from the film, Blade Runner. Jack swooped into the car park, and once again took up a full space with his bike, parking next to a mousy-haired man with ginger goatee and a sinewy, freckled face who stood leaning back against the side of a dark blue Subaru WRX that jutted with fins and air intakes.
‘Baz, me ol’ flower!’ Jack greeted him as he killed the Harley’s engine. ‘Yer back! And with a new motor. That the STI, yeah?’
‘Yeah, picked it up just before I headed off to Germany,’ Baz said, gripping Jack’s outstretched hand. He had a somewhat reedy Cork accent and an intense manner. ‘Took this monster out to the Nürburgring while I was in Cologne. Feckin’ belted around it, so I did! Nearly three hundred and fifty brake-horsepower under that hood, boy. Goes like shit off a shovel! Stiff old chassis on her though. Great for the autobahn, but you’ll bruise yer arse if you run into any potholes on the smaller routes.’ He gestured to Hilde. ‘Who’s this now?’
‘Speakin’ of Germany . . .’ Jack took the cigar from his mouth and made a mock bow, ‘this is Doctor Hilde Mayer, visiting us from Deutscher Wetterdienst. We can call her Hilde, she says. Hilde, this is Doctor Barry McGovern, works with me in General Forecasting – on the front line. Hilde will be joinin’ the Marine Unit. She’s hopin’ to get some divin’ in while she’s here. Maybe you could show her some good spots.’
Hilde glanced at Jack. She hadn’t mentioned she was a diver, but her PADI qualifications were on her CV. Was this guy trying to put her on the spot? Was this another challenge? Good God, she’d only made it as far as the car park . . .
‘That’s grand,’ Baz said, shaking Hilde’s hand. ‘I know a couple of places you’ve a good chance of seeing whale sharks. Glad to have you aboard.’
But Hilde saw it again, the same note of challenge that she’d picked up off Jack. They were welcoming enough, but they wanted to see how she’d do.
‘Germany – you’ve got the continental climate,’ Jack commented. ‘You’ve got seasons, right?’
‘Of course,’ Hilde replied.
‘Must be nice,’ Jack sniffed.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Oh Jesus, I nearly forgot!’ Baz exclaimed. He opened the door of his car and took out a bottle of whiskey and some glasses, putting the glasses on the roof of the car.
‘What’s goin’ on?’ Jack asked.
Just as he posed the question, a woman came speeding in on a bicycle, a high-performance racing bike, of course, thought Hilde. The woman pulled up, breathing hard. She was dark-skinned, probably of Asian descent, a long Roman nose among otherwise delicate features. She had a fierce, but excited look in her deep brown eyes. She looked formidably fit, dressed in skin-tight cycling shorts and top and wearing a streamlined helmet that she unclipped and yanked off as she waved to them.
‘Am I in time?’ she asked, standing her bike by bracing a pedal on the kerb.
‘Barely,’ Baz snorted. ‘What took you?’
‘Feck off,’ she snapped back. She started doing some leg stretches . ‘I just did thirty-two kay and I’ll be doing the same home again. Like I do every day, petrol-head. Some of us don’t want to sit on our arses in traffic, breathing fumes for half our lives.’
She looked over at Hilde.
‘What’s with the anorak?’
‘She’s German,’ Jack told her.
‘Doctor Hilde Mayer. Deutscher Wetterdienst,’ Jack said. ‘Call her Hilde. Hilde, this is Doctor Suria O’Neill. Climatology and Observations. Hilde’s joining Marine.’
‘Well, haven’t you come on the right morning?’ Suria cackled to Hilde.
‘Is someone gonna tell me what’s goin’ on?’ Jack demanded.
‘Therapy Tom’s on his way in,’ Suria said, her face child-like in its delight.
‘Shit, you’re kidding! Is it that time already?’
‘Therapy Tom?’ Hilde asked.
Baz was pouring whiskey into each of the four glasses.
‘Perpetual stress case,’ Jack replied as he accepted a glass. ‘He’s been on the job over ten years, but he has a breakdown two or three times a year. Can’t hack it – pressure’s too much for him. He’s been out for three months after the last one. Last few times, he hardly made it back into the building before he had his next panic attack.’
‘That’s horrible,’ Hilde gasped.
‘Terrible, yeah,’ Baz said. ‘Anyway, whenever he comes back now, we place bets on how far into the building he gets before he does a runner. However far that is, we’ll toast him for his effort. Take a glass.’
‘I . . . I can’t,’ Hilde blurted out, shocked at what was happening.
‘You have to do the toast,’ Suria insisted. ‘You’d only be disrespecting him otherwise. He keeps coming back. We have to salute that.’
‘Here he comes!’ Jack announced, pointing to a silver Toyota Avensis that was rolling into the car park. ‘Twenty quid says he doesn’t get out of the car!’
‘I’ll back him making it as far as the door,’ Suria said. ‘One hand on the handle.’
‘Opening the door?’ Baz pressed her.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ she responded, her hard eyes on the subject of their bets as if she was judging the form on a racehorse. ‘No, just putting the hand on the handle, I think.’
‘Have some bloody faith, people!’ Baz exclaimed. ‘Three months he’s been gone. Plenty of time to get those nerves sorted. A fortune spent on the shrink. Look at him gettin’ out there. Sure, his hands are hardly shakin’ at all. Have you ever seen a sheen of sweat like that on a more noble brow? I’ll see him through the door, but not up the stairs and I’ll be right – you watch now!’
Tom had the door of the car open now, and was rubbing his face.
‘That’s as far as he’s goin’ to get,’ Jack assured them, still confident he could win. ‘Look at those eyes. If he stared any harder he could cut glass.’
Tom’s arrival had been spotted by others in the Met Éireann HQ and windows were opening in the sloping sides of the slab of a building. There were cheers and shouts of encouragement to Therapy Tom as money changed hands. He had the car of his door open and lifted his right hand in a hesitant wave. Stepping out, he stood up and slammed the door shut with a resolute motion, as if his decision was made.
‘Ah, shite,’ Jack sighed, grimacing.
‘Good on you, Tom!’ Suria bellowed. ‘Great to have you back, man! How’re you feeling?’
‘Great! I’m feeling great!’ Tom called over to her as he made his way across the tarmac surface towards the door. ‘It’s . . . it’s great to be back.’
‘Great!’ Jack smirked.
‘Keep going, baby, you can do it!’ Suria egged him on.
‘Go on ya good thing, ya!’ Baz yelled.
Tom waved again, then lifted his hand to the people shouting from the building above. The level of noise rose as he got closer to the door. His pace slowed and the crowd, sensing the climax was close, roared in support. Hilde watched in horrified fascination as Tom made it the last few steps and reached out and . . . stopped.
‘Go on, Tom!’ Suria cried out. ‘You can do it! Take the handle, Tom! Grab it, man!’
He paused there, as if frozen for a few seconds, the emotional turmoil visible on his face, sweat running down from his hairline and dripping from his chin. Then a look of sheer terror came over him and he spun round and bolted back towards his car.
‘Ah Jesus, Tom!’ Suria gasped in exasperation.
The Toyota’s engine over-revved and Tom backed out of the space with screeching tyres. As he took off out of the car park, everyone waved goodbye.
Baz held up his glass of whiskey.
‘To Tom,’ he said.
They all drank and even Hilde drank with them, disturbed by what she’d seen.
‘I don’t understand,’ she said softly. ‘What did that to him?’
Jack’s smile faded into a more tender expression and he put his empty glass down on the roof of the car. Baz poured another measure.
‘You’re thinking how can things here be so mad, right?’ Jack asked. ‘I mean, it’s Ireland, yeah? It’s not like we get the really nutty weather here is it? No hurricanes or tornadoes. No tidal waves or serious drought. But we’ve been hit hard by climate change here. The floods have been especially bad, destroying businesses and crops. The economy’s taken some serious hits. The country’s broke. Every time we have to deal with something new, we haven’t got the resources to cope with it. Sure, our weather’s less violent compared to other places, but it’s so changeable, it’s hard to prepare for the extremes of weather we do get. A bit of a heat-wave and we have water shortages and our old and weak start dying of heatstroke. A bit of snow and the whole bloody country grinds to a halt and our old and weak start freezing. And that’s true in a lot of places, but it’s worse here ‘cos of our particular bloody weather.’
‘You were wondering why the Irish don’t wear waterproofs, anoraks,’ Jack said. ‘Because we do get loads of rain. But it’s not how much we get, it’s that we can get rain at any time. So if we were to dress for the weather, we’d have to wear anoraks every day and who wants to do that, right? And we’d also have to dress for the cold. And the really humid type of heat we get. But it’s the same for the bigger picture. We’re perpetually dealing with change and the floods are hitting us hardest. We don’t actually get much more rain than we used to, we just get it in more torrential downpours than before. And the combination of rainfall and rising sea levels is overwhelming our cities and our farms.’
‘We hardly have seasons any more,’ Suria added. ‘The weather’s just getting more and more chaotic and it makes it hard for anyone to do the kind of planning that helps us cope with flooding and other disasters. It’s all too little, too late. And because past floods have already cost us so much, we don’t have the money any more to deal with the disasters that are becoming more common. A lot of people can’t get their homes insured any more. A single flood can leave them homeless, financially ruined. So now everyone really pays attention to the weather forecast, because the country’s so overstretched, we’re constantly walking that edge of disaster and even something small can tip us over.’
‘We have a saying in Ireland: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute”.’ Baz continued. ‘Our job is to try and make sense of the chaos, to predict the tiniest changes in the weather that could trigger calamity further down the line. And here, for us, those changes are so small, so variable, it could drive you nuts. It’s like trying to nail down a flea with a needle. We stare at those satellite pictures, the reports and computer models like we’re bloody air traffic controllers working in a blizzard. If we misjudge our predictions by a few degrees here, or a few centimetres of rain there, lives could be wrecked.
‘The longer the world keeps heating up, the more extreme our weather is getting, the more broke the country gets and the fewer resources we have to deal with it, the more vulnerable we become to the weather. It’s a vicious circle. And when our people are trying to plan how best to use what little we have left . . . they look to the weather forecast.’
‘And every time we get it wrong, we get crucified for it,’ Jack said. ‘That’s why we let off so much steam when we finish work. It’s why Tom’s forever in feckin’ therapy. But to be honest, we love it. How could you not? It’s a beautiful thing, to stare into the chaos and try to understand it. And we are really bloody good at it. So, Hilde . . . welcome to the Oul’ Sod.’
Baz had refilled their glasses and they each held them up as he gestured for a toast.
‘Here’s to the chaos!’ he said brightly.
‘Here’s to the chaos!’ they cried and then they drank.
The mood was more sombre as they all headed towards the door, but Hilde was struck by these strung out meteorologists and their intensity. She empathized with them more than she expected to. She turned to see that Jack was still standing in the car park, gazing up at the sky. The temperature had dropped slightly. There were those heavy, brooding cumulonimbus hanging over everything. He gave a faint smile, spread his arms out to the sides and lowered his eyes to meet hers.
‘Let it rain!’ he said gently.
And it did.
It began yesterday with strong words from President Barack Obama at a press conference at the White House:
‘In the light of recent events, it has become clear that we have turned a blind eye to this danger for too long. We have ignored those who tried to warn us, and the cost has been tragically high. This new terrorist organization is like nothing we’ve faced before, an unprecedented threat to our way of life. I consider it a failing of my presidency that, of all the many things Americans fear, they aren’t scared enough of this. Because make no mistake about it; the scale of the catastrophe we face could not only eclipse every other terrorist act in history, it could exceed the damage caused by both world wars combined.
His words were echoed by British Prime Minister, David Cameron:
‘We stand shoulder to shoulder with America on this. What they do, we do. Where they go, we go.’
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was next to weigh in yesterday afternoon, stating that the environmental protests in his country against mining and the pollution from factories had been like a warning hiss, but had barely hinted at the size of the serpent that lay beneath the surface.
These reactions came in the wake of the discovery, earlier this week, that the undermining of the Western Antarctic ice sheet, whose collapse could cause devastation across the globe, had been an act of deliberate sabotage, perpetrated by a new extremist group known as CO2, formed by rogue elements of carbon and oxygen. The terrorist act was believed to be just the latest in a meticulously planned campaign of attrition. Originally members of the politically moderate Greenhouse Gas Alliance, this fundamentalist splinter group have reportedly become frustrated with the lack of recognition for their cause and dissatisfied with the slow pace of climate change.
Professed radicals, CO2’s forthright message and dramatic methods have been attracting a growing following of new fanatical molecules. In a statement released online two days ago, they told the world’s media:
‘For too long, humans have attempted to impose your will upon our people. You disturb the slumber of our ancestors and disrespect the bonds that are an inherent part of our identity. You make us slaves to your industry, discarding us when we are no more use to you. You have an insatiable greed for material possessions, possessions made from the bodies of our children. But your time is at an end. We will blow you from the land and sweep you into the sea. The elements will prevail. Glory be to the Universe!’
One by one, the world’s leaders have been stepping forward to acknowledge this new threat and make clear their resolve to combat it. Francois Hollande, France’s President, stated today that:
‘This marks a revolution in the attitudes of nations. From this point on, the people of the world shall be united in equal partnership, a brotherhood to stand against the perpetrators of this vile outrage. These rogue elements will not succeed. We will claim back the sky.’
Even historic enemies are putting their differences aside to face this extraordinary enemy. Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu met the press just an hour ago, telling them:
‘We shall embrace our Arab neighbours, standing with them at this momentous time. We’re going to have enough problems without fighting amongst ourselves. We’re all living on this fragile land together and we’re going to need each other if we’re to survive. CO2 and their insidious plot to change our climate will not recognize borders. Let us usher in a new era of cooperation and God bless our neighbours!’
Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia’s leaders have already indicated their desire to join the campaign against CO2, with the rest of the Arab world expected to follow suit. In a sun-baked region facing constant challenges with water supply, they know better than anyone how easily the environment can be adapted to create weapons of mass destruction. The United Arab Emirates have pledged to stop trying to figure out how to get water to the tops of towering skyscrapers in the desert and, instead, to plough their oil profits into their ongoing research into solar power.
‘If we can crack the battery and transmission problems, we can power whole nations,’ one source claimed. ‘We’ll pull the rug from under CO2’s feet.’
Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, has just appeared on ABC television, a visibly chastened man:
‘It’s time we gave due consideration to this land we’re living in. We need to understand its past, its nature, if we’re going to survive the future. Our mining, logging and farming have seriously weakened the land’s natural defences. We should have listened to the Aboriginal people and others who warned us about what this land could and couldn’t take. There’s nothing but open ocean standing between us and the Antarctic. This new enemy’s going to hit us first, and it’s going to hit us hard. And despite our military might, we are woefully unprepared.’
President Putin, speaking from Moscow yesterday evening, called a halt to all drilling for oil in the Arctic Circle.
‘I am announcing a stop to all drilling pending an investigation into the environmental effects. Russian naval forces are being deployed to protect the polar ice cap itself. And I’m not just talking about stopping Russian companies. Nobody’s taking any more oil out of there until we can find a more responsible way to do it. This process of environmental plunder has become a recruitment campaign for CO2 and others like them.’
There is widespread recognition that the developing world will bear the brunt of these new terrorist attacks and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has led the call asking for the leaders of nations across Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia what they need, how and where. He appeared moved to tears as he faced the cameras today, saying:
‘It’s just so inspiring to see everyone agreeing on something for once. But that’s how crucial this issue has become.’
There has been talk of deploying a peace-keeping force of UN sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, though this has already been criticized by some experts as ‘too little, too late’, or ‘kicking the can down the road’. There are also plans for pre-emptive strikes; a Shock and Awe campaign of forest plantation and a targeted climate engineering strategy, including establishing phytoplankton zones coordinated by NATO.
In the US base on Guantanamo Bay, construction has started on a research facility for ‘experimenting’ on rogue elements of carbon captured in the atmosphere. Once again, the spectre of extraordinary rendition has raised its ugly head, but this time, to a far less critical reception.
And it was President Obama who demonstrated the strongest commitment to an unflinching defence against the new terrorist group – after being challenged by a journalist, that ‘these could just be more noble, but empty words’.
‘I have just ordered the National Security Agency to hand over control of the majority of their vast computing power to the scientific community to aid in computer climate modelling,’ the president declared. ‘To help anticipate the changes to our weather and help us prepare for them. The NSA has had a bottomless budget to find enemies and yet they remained oblivious to the greatest threat of all, leaving us horribly vulnerable. They dropped the ball. Now, our fate is in the hands of the scientists we’ve ignored for too long. They’re going to need all the resources we can give them.’
After this shock announcement, and speaking off the record, one source in the NSA told me: ‘Frankly, most of the staff here are relieved. It’ll be great to be doing something worthwhile for a change. Spying on our own people, and the leaders of our allies, was just making everyone here unhappy anyway. And I think a lot of the British folks in GCHQ feel the same way.’
A rather unsettled-looking David Cameron acknowledged the long-standing ‘special relationship’ with the United States, and stated that he would have someone look into the possibility of GCHQ getting involved in a similar quest for life-saving knowledge.
President Obama, when asked if this new campaign could be considered a ‘War on Weather’, replied: ‘We’re not fighting the weather, we’re fighting those who would turn it against us. Besides, there’s big a difference between “weather” and “climate“. It’s a difference we all need to start understanding.
‘Because one thing is clear, we’re facing the possible collapse of our civilization. So it’s time to commit – you’re either with the human race . . . or you’re against it.’
There are times when, in order to succeed, we must suspend rational thought.
I say this in response to a word that has come up a lot with people I’ve talked to about climate change: ‘Powerless’. Now, this is not a Nike ad – I am not a lifestyle guru. But I need to explain why we should remove the word ‘powerless’ from any further discussion about climate change.
Okay, so we live within limits. For a start, even those of us living in democratic societies are not actually free to do whatever we want . . . and in truth, the vast majority of us wouldn’t want complete freedom and what comes with it. We are not free to live as we like because, as social creatures, we have chosen to accept responsibility by placing constraints on our behaviour. We live our lives according to sets of values and rules of escalating severity. Social skills, traditions, notions of respectability, maintenance of reputation, honour, the rule of law and ultimately, physical capability. We accept these restraints because they protect us from extremes of behaviour and channel our efforts into maintaining and improving society.
And our society, despite frequent claims to the contrary, is improving. Progress is, at times, excruciatingly slow and sometimes events occur that seem to pull us so far back that you think your heart would break with the injustice of it, but mankind is dragging itself forward. As a race, we should not allow ourselves to be deluded by nostalgia for a better time that never was.
Ask yourself where and at what point in history you would rather live. Pick a time when things were more just, more fair, more enlightened. A time when government was more democratic, when there was more equality, when you had a better chance in most countries of a fair trial, a decent meal, access to life-saving medical expertise or relatively painless dental treatment. The cost of this progress to our planet and many of its people has been almost unfathomable and we are still capable of horrific acts, but our tolerance of such things is far less than it used to be. Our awareness is greater than it has ever been before. Our empathy has a far wider reach. On the whole, our world is a better place (for humans at least) than it has ever been.
While the constraints our society places upon us may limit many of the things we could or would do, they also enable us to do far more together than we could do individually. But this structure has also resulted in our granting a great deal of importance to political, religious and business leaders and, in doing so, we have given them a large degree of influence over our lives.
We are prone to thinking in terms of those who have power, and those who have none. Given the way power is distributed, this is a very rational way to think. It is easy to believe that those in ‘authority’ make all the important decisions – and that those who have neither power nor money in abundance are excluded from those decisions. It is a very reasonable assumption to make.
As the other writers and I on the Weather Stations project seek out the knowledge, opinions and viewpoints of the experts, the word ‘powerless’ keeps arising in our conversations. Because this is seen as the greatest obstacle to making the changes that will help us overcome the challenges that face us as our climate transforms our world. It’s not the lack of power, but the inertia this belief instills.
Where our weather, our environment is concerned, most people believe themselves to be powerless. It is too big, too much to take, too overwhelming. Higher tides drown coastlines, storms uproot giant trees, dry heat triggers bush-fires and rain-swollen rivers flood farmland. And it would be a mistake to consider this attitude to be an ignorant position. Many of the people who know the hard facts of our situation, who have fought for years against the causes of climate change, are oppressed by this belief. You know an environmental campaigner has descended into despair when they start looking to nuclear power in the hope of reducing the amount of carbon we’re spewing into our atmosphere.
Something else that kept coming up in our discussions was the idea of ‘being positive’. I think this very phrase is problematic. ‘Being positive’ can suggest that you’re merely looking on the bright side, putting a brave face on it . . . turning that frown upside-down. Those who have a good understanding of the facts, but have little hope, regard the phrase as a superficial attitude to a crippling problem. Many of those who have little comprehension of the facts, but feel even more powerless as a result, have even less regard for the notion.
As far as our response to our changing environment is concerned, ‘being positive’ is not a facile attitude. It’s the only one we can have. Either we take action to meet this challenge or we accept our fate. And given that we’re looking at events that will inevitably lead to mankind having less land to farm, less food and therefore experiencing more conflict; given that some pretty sober, intelligent and well informed people are now talking about the possible collapse of our civilization within the lifetimes of our children, then accepting our fate isn’t really an option, is it?
Any rational person would be right to feel overwhelmed by the scale of this problem . . . Which is why I need to make an argument against rational thought.
The progress of our society has, from the outset, been driven by people who defied reasonable expectations of failure. Humans have a proven history of attempting things that reason suggested could not succeed . . . and confounding this belief by succeeding.
This kind of irrational ambition is something I – along with almost every other professional artist – have a bit of experience in.
If you want to make a living as a writer in Ireland, statistics would suggest that you have more chance of winning the lottery. And if you want to devote your life to an art form, it takes a lot of time and effort to develop the skills you need – diverting you from investing in other careers that offer far more chance of success, and certainly security. And yes, your chances of becoming a full-time writer are very slim . . . but the statistics are a bit misleading.
For a start, you have to count all the people who tried, but didn’t try hard enough; who failed to put in the work, or develop their technique, or their thought processes. All the people who didn’t try enough different approaches, who took too narrow a view. All the people who simply didn’t persist long enough. If you can crack all of that, you’ve substantially increased your odds, though there’s still a good deal of luck involved.
It is extraordinarily difficult to become a professional artist of any kind, but people still go for it all the time . . . and every now and then, someone actually makes it through. But nobody who took a completely rational view of it would ever try in the first place, because in terms of time, money and emotional trauma, the risks don’t make sense. And imagine a world without people who have the passion to defy those odds.
It is the very definition of truly historic achievement that some succeed where others think it impossible. Whether it’s in exploration, science or medicine, in sport or the arts, engineering or humanitarian work or social justice, ignoring good sense is part of what makes us what we are.
The apathy, this lack of belief that we can rise to the challenge of climate change, is not a fact, it is an attitude. And attitudes can be changed.
And I don’t accept that it’s just the powerful people who are in the position to take action. Even those who are driven by greed and self-preservation can, despite sometimes enormous power, be forced to change their path. They may be determined that we burn every last crumb of coal, or drop of oil or breath of gas (and there’s every chance we’ll do just that), but when you get right down to it, these people are small-minded giants who will go with the tide in order to follow the flow of money and protect their positions. Because tides do turn, and I have faith in these giants’ dedication to self-preservation.
Ireland has its fair share of corrupt, greedy and small-minded leaders – though like any country, we do have some people in power who look at the bigger picture too. And the writing of new laws to make change concrete has as much to do with what the majority of people will refuse to tolerate any longer, as it has with the demands of the powerful.
Let’s take a look at some of the fundamental changes that have happened in Ireland, just within my lifetime:
We no longer tolerate beating children in schools, or drink driving, or secondhand smoke. Religion has a steadily decreasing influence over our politics. Where the environment is concerned, we have made huge improvements to the levels of pollution in our rivers, around our coastline and in the quality of our air. We dealt with the plastic bags that littered our country. We cut our use of CFCs because of the damage to the ozone layer. Solar power is becoming a practical option for home-owners (this in a country not known for its levels of sunlight) and we are setting standards for wind-power, with nearly 20% of our electricity now coming from wind, with occasional levels capable of supplying 50%. The target for 2020 is to be able to produce 40% of our electricity with wind farms.
All this in a country that, despite a lot of economic growth, is not wealthy by the standards of many of its neighbours. And each of these things has been achieved often because of changes in legislation, not because one person in power decided it was necessary, but because ordinary people who cared enough campaigned for it until attitudes changed, the public began demanding it and the law-makers judged the time was right and carried it through to the legislation that finally provided the tipping point.
Each time, because of a change in public attitudes, the new law became desirable, then necessary, then inevitable. We need to, we can, we will do the same to tackle the changes in our environment, because we have no real choice in the matter. This has to get done.
Even the world of business is coming round, with investors looking increasingly towards renewable sources of energy because fossil fuels are seen for what they are: a dead end. They are a resource we are completely certain will run out, while the alternatives are, effectively, limitless. The prices of oil, gas and coal have nowhere to go but up. It is absolutely clear to those who are crunching the long-term numbers that we have to end our reliance on these dwindling resources, because scarcity will lead to conflict, conflict makes for an unstable market and markets don’t like instability. It gets in the way of making money.
But beyond all of this, there is one utterly compelling and persuasive fact that makes me believe that we can meet the challenge of climate change, that we can reduce the damage we’re doing and adapt to the changes past damage has caused. There is a reason we should stop referring to ourselves as ‘powerless’, a reason we should have hope and be forthright and energetic in the action we take. A reason why we should promote a positive attitude among ordinary people, and even an expectation of success. And is it this:
Human beings are so powerful that we fundamentally changed the weather on our world . . . and we did it by accident.
Imagine what we could do if we actually put our minds to it.
I recently bought a pack of socks while I was in Melbourne and was intrigued to find that they came with each sock labelled left or right. Given that these were an adult size and that the people of Melbourne strike me as the types who most likely know their left from their right, I came to the conclusion that this labelling was intended to be symbolic, an attempt to raise awareness of, and perhaps even overcome, the deep divide that exists between the political right and left in Australia.
Like trying to walk with your feet spread wide apart (or indeed, heading off in different directions), this divide presents a huge impediment to Australia’s struggle to adapt to the challenges of climate change.
Gazing at the symbol-laden socks, and profoundly moved by this noble act of weaving performed by the garment industry, I was compelled to write the following poem. I hope it succeeds in conveying the pathos, and enlightenment, I experienced on opening the packet:
In Oz they put words on each sock,
To urge politicians to talk,
Though they may just be feet,
The analogy’s neat,
‘Cos each needs the other to walk.
The dead man lay, face up, half buried in dry mud. The parts of him that were exposed were blackened and thinned, charred by the fire that had ravaged the land for miles around. The parts of him that were buried in the dried up creek bed, protected by the clay, were still largely intact. These were the parts that the two detectives hoped would provide them with some answers.
The body had been found just short of a culvert from which a thin stream of water trickled. The creek bed was over five feet wide, but there was barely a thread of water running along the bottom. The culvert carried the the water from the creek under a rough farm track that the two detectives had walked down from the main road at the crest of the hill. Bill Flynn and Jemimah Hearn, known to their colleagues as Blowfly and Jerm, were examining the corpse. Or rather, Blowfly was down in the creek, doing the examining while Jerm stood up on the bank above him, smoking a cigarette. This was a habit of hers. She insisted that, as senior officer, she needed to stand back and get the overview before getting her hands dirty.
‘You should put that out,’ Blowfly said, as he finished taking his photos.
‘The damage is done already, don’t y’think?’ Jerm replied solemnly, expelling some smoke as she gestured round at the blackened slope, the charred stumps of bushes and the scorched skeletons of a few scattered gum trees. This had been the worst bush-fire in the region’s history, claiming over a hundred lives and leaving a landscape of ash, charcoal and burnt earth.
She was tall, with dark brown hair worn short and untidy, framing a face that Blowfly thought of as an attractive undertaker’s. He was a couple of inches shorter than her, with faintly Oriental features and an Irish accent; a trim, neat man with a manner to match.
Blowfly sighed and shook his head, before handing the camera up to his partner. She put it back in the toolbox that lay at her feet. Her partner had recorded every detail of the scene with photos. Now he needed to see how much of the body had been preserved. They were part of a new international unit formed to investigate crimes with far-reaching consequences, but had worked together for some time before that, so they were well used to each other’s habits.
They were here in the Australian state of Victoria because of the thousands of lives that had been directly affected by the fires and the environmental damage they had caused. Though they were not Australian, the two detectives were here in this dried-up creek on a slope covered in burnt vegetation, because Victoria’s police were accepting all the help they could get in investigating the causes of this catastrophe, and this man’s body had been found close to one of the points where the local fire brigade’s captain said the blaze had started. Which possibly made this unidentified man both its first victim, and an arson suspect.
Bush-fires were a fact of life out here – a part of the natural cycle that scoured the landscape to clear the ground for new growth – but when they got of out of control, they could grow into firestorms that destroyed homes and communities and could threaten towns and even cities. And as climate change made the extremes of wet and dry weather worse, these infernos were becoming more common.
It was extraordinary that people sometimes set fires out here on purpose, with the deliberate intention of causing this level of destruction. Jerm inhaled smoke and reflected on the kind of mind that craved the hell on earth these firestorms could become.
There was hardly a trickle of water in the creek, though there must have been a pool of water left where the man lay, before he died, because half his body was embedded in the cracked surface of the creek bed, a situation that would have been impossible if the mud had not been soft and several inches deep at the time of his death. There was a small backpack embedded beside him, but Blowfly left it there for the moment, focussing on the corpse first.
‘So what’ve we got?’ Jerm asked. ‘Who is this guy? Where’s he from?’
‘Face and skin are too burnt for me to guess at his race but I can see the remains of tattoos on both arms,’ Blowfly replied, carefully scraping back the clay with a small trowel. The body couldn’t be moved from here until the coroner arrived, so he was careful to do as little as possible to disturb it. ‘This one on the lower right arm looks like an Aboriginal design. The one on the upper left looks Irish . . . maybe Scottish? From what I can see of the skin under the mud, it looks dark but not black – Asian, maybe? Could be a dark white guy or a light black guy.’
‘If he’s got a record, maybe we can ID him off the tattoos,’ Jerm muttered. She pointed to a spot about two metres from where Blowfly was crouching. ‘What’s this stuff down here?’
‘Why don’t you get down and see for yourself?’ he asked.
‘No point two of us getting our shoes wrecked,’ she answered, holding up the cigarette. ‘At least not until I’ve finished this.’
Blowfly moved down to where Jerm had pointed and found a number of objects. They too were scorched or melted where the heat of the blaze had crossed over the creek. But as Blowfly tenderly unearthed each one, he found pieces of them untouched by the fire. Laying out a sheet of plastic, he laid the items on it, one by one.
‘Okay,’ he said, touching each one as if it was a holy relic. ‘So . . . we’ve got the remains of a tablet – a Nexus, I think. A green fleece and this light blue hoodie. A piece of a paper bag that looks like it’s from the A1 Bakery . . . Isn’t that the Lebanese café in Brunswick, in Melbourne? Anyway, there’s also these coins; two from Holland and three from Germany. The kind of small change left sitting in his jacket pocket after he’d been abroad, maybe? There’s a plastic water bottle, or what used to be one at least. And what looks like a letter in Chinese, but to be honest it could be Japanese, Korean . . . Someone back at the office will know. I’ll send them a photo.’
‘No ID?’ Jerm asked.
‘Nothing here,’ Blowfly said. He put each item in a separate evidence bag, labelling them all as he did so. ‘Could have burned in one of his front pockets.’
‘So what was he doing out here on his own?’ Jerm wondered aloud. ‘We’re miles from the nearest house in one of the hottest, driest summers on record. It’s hardly backpacking territory. There was a bit of forest before the fire, but mostly it was just scrub, bushes and the odd gum tree. There’s no sign of a truck or a bike . . . What’s his story?’
She wasn’t expecting an answer and Blowfly wasn’t about to offer one. That remained to be found. Jerm was just thinking with her mouth, as she sometimes did.
‘So let’s say he was here when the fire started, either because he was a firebug, or because he was stupid and lit a campfire in a place and on a day that only a complete idiot would light a fire. There were even signs up in the towns warning people not to light fires. A “Total Fire Ban”, they call it, and they don’t kid around with that stuff. So he lights a fire . . . not here – further upwind, near the road is where the whole thing kicked off. The grass catches and then some of the scrub. He’s got no transport, so he panics and runs, but why did he come here? If you’re going to run, you’d head down the main road. It’s not far from where the fire was lit and he’d get a head-start on the blaze. Instead, he comes here and dives into the creek.’
‘Panic,’ Blowfly suggested. ‘You ever seen how fast one of those fires can spread once it’s going? Faster than a man can run, if the wind picks up. It can fan out at up to fifty miles an hour. With the vegetation as dry as it was, embers blow ahead on the wind and light new fires in spots all over the place. Even firemen with years of experience can get cut off.’
‘The area had rain earlier this year,’ he went on. ‘A surge of growth in the vegetation on the slopes. Then the summer dried it out, which basically made more fuel out of it. You had square miles of dry tinder just waiting for a match. Within minutes the smaller bushes around him could be burning. In twenty minutes, this whole slope would be an inferno. This guy would have been running ahead of a wall of flame. The heat was intense, it melted parts of the machinery on that farm in the next valley. It’d be like being chased by a blast furnace. He sees the culvert, the only cover in sight, and goes for it. Even if the water in this creek was deep enough to submerge – and I doubt it was – the heat would have cooked him or, more likely, he was suffocated by the smoke.’
‘But the fire wouldn’t have cut him off that quickly. He still had time to get further. The wind was blowing the fire away from the road,’ Jerm muttered. ‘Unless he just stood around watching it, getting his thrills. But that’s why the location’s bothering me. If he was a firebug, he must have had a car or bike. He’d be ready to escape. The fire brigade would be racing out here as soon as someone spotted the smoke. So maybe he was a walker who lit a fire . . . or there were others with him and they did a runner in the car.’
‘They left him to burn?’ Blowfly frowned. ‘That’d be harsh.’
‘We need an ID,’ Jerm said, clucking her tongue. ‘Even knowing his race would be a start. Where the hell is the coroner?’
‘Busy,’ Blowfly said quietly. ‘They’ll be finding bodies for days yet.’
They both stared at the corpse embedded in the clay.
‘Aboriginal and Irish tattoos,’ Jerm murmured. ‘A dark white guy or a light black guy. Ate recently in a Lebanese place. Had Dutch and German coins on him and a letter written in an Oriental language, which suggests he could read it. Who was this guy?’
‘He’s an elephant,’ Blowfly remarked.
‘You know that old story, the blind men and the elephant?’ Blowfly asked. He received only a blank look in reply. ‘Three old men . . . or maybe there were four, I don’t know . . . Anyway, they’re standing round this elephant, and each feels a different part of it, trying to figure out what it is. The first one feels the trunk and says it’s a snake. The second feels the leg and says it’s a tree. The third one feels the tail and says it’s a rope. Individually the parts don’t make sense, because they can’t see the whole thing. No one piece can give you the whole picture, you know?’
‘And the elephant stays still while these blind men are groping it?’
‘Christ . . . Jerm, it’s a bloody fable. You’re not supposed to take it literally.’
Blowfly stepped over the trickle of water running down the centre of the creek to where the backpack lay flattened in the mud. He gently lifted the backpack, peeling it up, some of the clay still damp beneath it. He opened it up, but it was empty, apart from some moist dirt inside.
‘The guy holding the “snake” didn’t notice it was breathing rather heavily?’ Jerm asked.
‘Give it a rest,’ her partner growled.
‘Was the elephant ticklish?’ Jerm persisted. ‘These guys could’ve got themselves trampled, fondling it like that.’
‘We’ve got a dead man here,’ Blowfly said sharply as he handed the limp backpack up to her. ‘I don’t think you’re treating this situation with the gravity it demands.’
‘You’re the one who brought up the bloody elephant!’
‘Take a look at that,’ Blowfly told her, gesturing to the bag. ‘These footprints on the bank look odd to me. I want to dig up his feet.’
Jerm stubbed her cigarette out on the bare earth and carefully placed the butt in some tin foil and put it in her pocket. She may have had little control over her habit, but she had enough sense not to contaminate the crime scene. As she put on some latex gloves, she thought about the mentality that would set fire to a land and if it bore any relation to the mind that would breathe cancer-causing smoke for pleasure. Different breeds of the same madness, perhaps.
Spreading out another plastic sheet, she laid the backpack on it and went over every inch of it while Blowfly continued to examine the body. There were a few more items in the side zip-pockets of the bag: a pack of tissues; some sachets of sugar from a café in Melbourne; a sodden street map of Sydney. The main section of the pack was empty, but running her gloved fingers around the inside, she found grit from the creek bed and, to her surprise, a few small stones too. They couldn’t have been washed inside, not by the trickle of water that was running down there now. And the mouth of the bag had been pointing downstream.
Jerm gazed down at the objects Blowfly had spread out on the ground in the creek bed, chewing on her lip.
‘He wasn’t a hiker,’ Blowfly announced, having dug up one of the feet.
There was a light, thin-soled sandal on the foot. Suitable for strolling around on city streets for the day, but useless for walking any distance out in this kind of country. He stood up, looking down at the body.
‘And look at these footprints he’s left,’ Jerm said, pointing. ‘He didn’t just jump down there and dive into the water. He climbed in and out a couple of times. He could easily have made it to culvert if he was just going for cover.’
‘And if he wasn’t a hiker,’ Blowfly added, ‘then there was definitely a vehicle. So somebody left him here. Was he dragged out here by force? Can’t pin the race down; Aboriginal Irish who’s spent time in Thailand and Germany, eats in a Lebanese café and can read an Oriental language?’
‘Sounds like a typical Australian to me,’ Jerm sniffed. ‘There’s your elephant. Listen, Fly, I think we’re missing something here. Our guy dumped his stuff out of the bag. Just threw it all into the creek. There was still odds and ends in the side pockets, but the main part of the bag was empty. I think he was using it.’
‘For what?’ Blowfly asked.
‘To pick up water,’ she replied. ‘The lining’s waterproof. I think he was using it as a bucket. That’s why he came to the creek instead of running down the road. He was trying to put out the fire.’
They both regarded the body of the dead man, seeing him in a new light.
‘So he or one of his friends started the fire, maybe by accident, maybe on purpose,’ Blowfly said quietly. ‘He stayed to try and fight the fire and whoever was with him jumped in the car and left. Maybe they could have beaten it if there had been enough of them, but he didn’t stand a chance on his own. Firemen with tankers of water struggle to fight these fires. If these gits knew anything at all about bush-fires, they killed him as sure as if they’d poured petrol on him and lit a match.’
‘We need an ID,’ Jerm said.
‘We’ll get one,’ Blowfly said with certainty. He cast his eyes around the burnt landscape. ‘And when we know who he is, we’ll find his friends. I want to find out what kind of maniac starts something like this.’
‘Coroner’s here,’ Jerm announced, seeing a car coming over the top of the hill and turning down the farm track towards them.
Stripping off her latex gloves, she slipped them into her pocket. Then she lit up another cigarette.
‘You should put that out,’ Blowfly said.