Turned Out Nice: How the British Isles will Change as the World Heats Up

Steven Yearley is beguiled by smart and provocative essays that herald the arrival of profound change

August 26, 2010

Climate change is often described as a global problem, although it is increasingly recognised that this doesn't mean it will lead to the same difficulties everywhere. The Mediterranean lands may bake and northern Africa desiccate further, but Limerick or Preston may find that it's a climate change for the better, at least for the next century or two. In this beguiling book Marek Kohn draws on the latest work on projected future climates to offer an imaginative and well-documented examination of how Britain and Ireland may fare.

Rather than trying to foresee a future for these islands as a whole, Kohn offers us six essays on specific places: a hotter, drier London, the eroding coast of East Anglia, changed uplands in Wales and England, a drowning river valley on England's south coast, contested futures for Scottish nature near Loch Ness, and a surprisingly resilient County Clare. Each essay reveals that the place we know today has its own environmental history - in part a history of former climatic changes but also a story of changing ownership, priorities and management or neglect. The stories are told with a careful and often poetic eye to detail, and it becomes clear that future changes to our natural and built environments, and to the landscape, won't come as forced responses to external "shocks", but will be mediated and shaped by our interventions. The world may be warming but we will continue to mould it.

It is evident that Kohn has conducted a lot of research on the chosen places and spent time in each locale observing and reflecting; he evinces fondness and familiarity for each. No particular methodology appears to drive his selections, other than that we get a range of low-lying and upland places, some densely populated, others remote. Kohn illuminates the essays with smart selections from literary accounts and unexpected historical details about farming methods, changing building techniques and alterations in aesthetic sensibility. He and his publishers have also developed a very neat form of referencing, eschewing numbered endnotes in favour of page-by-page background notes, authoritatively but unobtrusively done.

Inhabitants of these islands are sufficiently used to disappointing weather to have developed the expression "it's turned out nice" as a pleasant form of greeting, optimistic and bland enough to be used even with strangers. The irony, as Kohn points out, is that in the coming century it looks likely to turn out relatively nice for these islands as a whole. London's parks may have to be transformed to cope with less moisture and hotter days, but they may become a focus for fashionable evening promenades as residents seek the freshness of the night-time air. Looking at our continental neighbours, let alone more distant cities, we may indeed think that it has turned out pretty well for us.

Kohn's possible futures admittedly turn on a number of political and cultural assumptions - for example about how open our society continues to be and how environmental migration is handled in a European context - that could perhaps have been scrutinised further. But these are smart and provocative essays, charming to read while hinting at profound and fundamental change.

Turned Out Nice: How the British Isles will Change as the World Heats Up

By Marek Kohn

Faber and Faber, 368pp, £14.99

ISBN 9780571238156

Published 3 June 2010

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