There was a time on these temperate islands when freak weather thrilled us with its bouts of exceptional heat, wind, rain or snow. Unless you were at sea in a gale, fear was a rare emotion. Even in 1987, when the so-called Great Storm hurtled through southern England and northern France on a night in mid-October, it was possible to be more awed than afraid. Crashing branches and tumbling slates woke people, but when they turned to each other in bed it was to exclaim about the wind’s strength – “Would you just listen to that!” – rather than to see it as a portent of something larger or more terrible. Thirty-odd years later, most of the people who lived through the Great Storm remember it mainly because a BBC weatherman got the forecast wrong.
In England, the wind gusted at 120mph that night, and at least 22 people were killed on both sides of the Channel. But unless you were among the bereaved, or had a tall oak fall through the roof, nobody felt anxiety or despair. There was no prevailing gloom.
The writer Jonathan Raban witnessed the scene in Hyde Park, where small crowds had gathered around the gaping craters left by uprooted trees, and buzzsaws made the park “as noisy as a logging camp”. Raban noted a popular reaction. “It’s so sad, people said, trying to quench their smiles – for they didn’t feel sad at all,” he wrote. “They were thrilled by the magnificent destruction of the wind: it was as if the world itself had come tumbling down, and even the shyest, most pacific people in the crowd felt some answering chord of violence in their own natures respond to this tremendous and unlooked-for act of violence in nature itself.”
That seemed true to me. As a child, lying late in bed on a Saturday morning, I would imagine that the bedstead had electric-powered wheels and could be driven anywhere in any weather, while I lay snug with a hot-water bottle under a waterproof quilt, steering the bedstead into gales and downpours. Growing up beside the sea, I could repeat this juxtaposition of comfort and danger by nestling on a stormy afternoon in a little hollow above the shore to watch the big, grey waves smash over the rocks as if they had taken against them. From a vantage point that was safe and relatively warm, the weather presented itself as an entertainment.
Sometimes, clearly, it was more than that. In 1953, looking out from our living room on a rolling sea, I heard adults speak gravely about how the same storm had sunk the ferry Princess Victoria on its passage to Northern Ireland, with the loss of 133 passengers and crew. And in January 1968 a stronger and even more damaging wind than the Great Storm of 1987 tore west to east across Scotland, leaving 20 people dead and several hundred homeless.
Working a late shift on a Glasgow newspaper that night, I thought I saw the glass in the office windows bend inwards before it broke; a scene that might belong to the Book of Revelation (“And there fell upon men a great hail out of heaven, every stone about the weight of a talent; and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail…”). But as the idea of a punitive God had died long ago, even on a Presbyterian paper such as the Scottish Daily Express, weather was left as a series of random events unconnected to any human activity.
Still, tentative connections were being made. By the early 1960s, scientists knew beyond doubt that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were rising; there was, or could be, a “greenhouse effect”. In 1975 the geophysicist Wallace Broecker popularised the phrase “global warming”, at least among the scientific community, when he included it in the title of an academic paper. It was only in 1988, however, that it began to be seen as a pressing global concern – thanks largely to the testimony of the climatologist James Hansen before a US Senate committee, the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the work of the writer Bill McKibben, whose book The End of Nature, published in 1989, was an early primer to climate change’s likely effects.
The 30 years since have been lived out in a kind of denial: not in terms of international conferences and demonstrations, or the growth in renewable energy and the search for the perfect electric car, but in our apparent belief that nothing fundamental will change. McKibben wrote in Granta magazine in 2003 that people still thought about global warming “in the way they think about ‘violence on television’ or ‘growing trade deficits’, as a marginal concern to them, if a concern at all … hardly anyone has fear in their guts”.
For many people, that may still be true: “FABruary: record-breaking sunshine [as] UK has hottest winter day ever”, announced the Sun’s celebratory front page on Tuesday, with any reference to climate change confined to a final paragraph on page five. But that treatment seemed old-fashioned somehow, and discordant with a belated but gathering alarm at the prospect of crop failure, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, forest fires, sea-level rise, soil degradation, mass migration and all the other horsemen in the cavalry of the apocalypse that threatens to sweep through the world before the end of the century. A new American bestseller, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, lays out the territory with the slogan, “It is worse, much worse, than you think”– though its prophecies are drawn from scientifically respectable projections that are far from worst-case.
How can we live with this prospect and not go mad? The website of Extinction Rebellion, which aims to change government attitudes to climate breakdown through nonviolent resistance, carries a film, Heading for Extinction and What to Do About It, which is one of the plainest bits of film-making you will ever see. A female scientist stands in what looks to be her modest kitchen and talks for an hour to a small audience (never in shot) about human civilisation’s probable fate. “Traditionally, you try to be a bit hopeful,” she says at the beginning, “but this is a different kind of talk.” What we need, she says, isn’t hope but courage. We’re heading towards three degrees of warming, and that will be catastrophic, “like boarding a plane that has a one in 20 chance of a crash”.
Halfway through her talk, she allows her audience two minutes to grieve for our future losses. Then she invites us to act – to modify the future terror through present acts of peaceful protest. Is it really worth trying? That, she says, is the wrong question. We must act out of “a desire to be a worthy ancestor”.
When Raban visited Hyde Park in 1987 to look at the fallen trees, none of that speech was imaginable. We had then, and for some time after, yet to feel fear in our guts.
• Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist