I am writing this blog entry from the Chitorok restaurant in Kiev’s Borispol airport when I should actually be sitting in a meeting in the office back in London.
Why am I here? Volcanic ash, apparently…
Not for the first time in recent months, events in Iceland are having a ripple effect across Europe and beyond, allowing the country to punch above its weight. Since last night, winds from the north-west have been carrying volcanic ash from Iceland towards Britain closing many of our airports – including, unfortunately enough for me, airports in London where I was due to arrive early this morning.
Three months ago, if someone had told me that they were predicting that flights across Europe would be delayed due to volcanic ash from a dormant volcano in Iceland I would have laughed at them. The very suggestion would have been ludicrous; like something from a low-budget disaster film.
However, today, not only is it a a reality, but experts warn that this phenomenon could be with us for some time to come as the last time this volcano erupted, it continued spewing magma and ash for over a year…
Incidents like these serve to remind us of the power of nature and our relative weakness before it; despite all of our technology and our dependence on flying, there is nothing that we can do to stop or even to avoid the impact of this ash – planes simply have to stay on the ground.
Or do they?
Some observers, such as Sir Richard Branson, believe that the authorities are over-reacting and that they should not be in a position to close the airspace because of the ash, and insist that the airlines should make the choice for themselves and their passengers.
Sir Richard went as far as to describe the decision to close Manchester airspace as “once again beyond a joke”.
Why is he so angry? At one level, I’m sure that I’m sure that like many good businesspeople he has a natural aversion to Government meddling, but the more serious issue here for the airlines is that of economics.
Every hour of closed airspace means hundreds of grounded flights – not only lost business for the airlines, but potentially huge compensation bills from the affected passengers.
If the worst-case scenario came to fruition and the volcanic ash became a feature of our weather system for another year, the regular closure of airspace across Europe would devastate an already weakened airline industry that is coming out of the worst recession in living memory.
These economic eruptions may be more than the industry can take.
This situation does call into question our reliance on air travel as a primary mode of transport; perhaps this disruption will give us pause for thought, allowing us to consider the alternatives which are often more cost-effective and less damaging to the environment.
I must declare and interest here; I fly more than most and rack-up about 15 return flights a year due to my various business and charitable activities – it is nothing short of hypocrisy for me to be suggesting that people should fly less, but we really must!
This volcanic activity may force us to – although the economic cost may be very, very high indeed.
I have been fascinated by people’s reaction to the current inclement weather for a number of reasons…
Firstly, whilst this is definitely the longest, coldest period in my living memory, I haven’t found it quite as debilitating as some others seem to have; I made it into the office every day last week (with some minor delays) and expect to do the same this week.
I wonder how many of the (estimated) 44% of our British workforce who didn’t make it to work last Monday really weren’t able to get it?
Secondly, I cannot help but be amazed by the people whose reaction to seeing the snow is: “So much for Global Warming!” This does highlight the fact that those who have taken a leadership position in educating the rest of us about the Environment really do have a long way to go to get the message across. They should be talking ‘Climate Change’ and extreme weather, rather than Global Warming, because it clearly doesn’t compute for some who cannot grasp that the warming of the globe could mean more snow.
Third, where does the media find these hilarious experts who – at the first sign of any unusual event – come out of the woodwork to declare that the end is nigh. Believe it or not, on 11 January, The Times claimed that (unattributed) experts have suggested that the cold snap could lead to as many as 90,000 extra deaths. Did someone say scaremongering?!
Fourth, why oh why do people still go to walk on lakes, ponds and rivers when they are frozen over? Every year, people tragically lose their lives by not following this simplest of rules: “Do not go on frozen bodies of water, no matter how safe they look!”
Fifth in my list is this: In March 2009, the Met Office took delivery of the UK’s most powerful supercomputer from IBM, so how come they still cannot predict the weather accurately, even 12 hours ahead? If the weather really has become that unpredictable, what exactly is the purpose of these forecasts and should we be spending so much money on them?
Next is this – why are so many people in Britain so insistent that every other country copes fine with snow, when practically the whole of the Northern Hemisphere from East Coast America to Russia is struggling to handle the worst winter for 100 years, and coping much worse than we are in Britain?
Major cities in America, China, France, Germany, India, Russia and Spain are all struggling to cope with the snow too and some have been brought to a complete standstill, so where do people get the idea that somehow everyone else takes it in their stride?
On the contrary, the response of our public services has been fantastic, and we should be proud of their efforts and how well they have kept the wheels of UK Plc turning in these difficult times.
And finally, whatever happened to the great British stoicism that once defined this nation? It seems to be in short supply in some areas where people have bleated and whined about ‘the authorities’ not doing enough to help them, when in times gone by they would have done more to help themselves!
If the cold spell continues, I would encourage people to do just one thing:
Yet again, just over two years after the devastating floods in Tewkesbury, Britain finds itself once more coming to terms with the aftermath of a devastating freak weather occurrence and its impact on the people in Scotland and the north of England.
Quite rightly, people’s thoughts are focused on the tragic loss of life (including PC Bill Barker who died in the line of duty helping people after a bridge collapse in Workington) and also the huge clean-up operation that will be required afterwards.
But shouldn’t we also stop to think about the impact of climate change on our lives, and consider whether or not events like this are likely to become more common?
Whether or not you believe that humans are responsible for the obvious changes in the Earth’s climate, those changes are a fact.
Increasingly unpredictable weather events are affecting many parts of the world – from Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans in 2005 to Hurricane Felix that killed hundreds of people in Nicaragua in 2007 and the floods that left thousands homeless in eastern Africa in the same year.
Trends would suggest that increasingly volatile climatic events are going to become a regular feature of our lives and whilst we are right to focus our efforts now on helping the victims to get their lives back together we also need to make sure that we are considering the reality of climate change in our future plans.
Rising water levels, wider variations in temperature and a wetter but warmer climate are all realities for Britain.
We must mitigate the impact of these facts on British life by sensibly considering them in our planning and development activity.
The Government cannot pursue a strategy of allowing the population of our cities to grow unchecked; this places enormous pressure on the infrastructure in those cities, not least the need for housing.
The building of housing in flood-plains must stop. The Government must develop a clear strategy for dealing with the need for additional housing, whilst also looking to address the regional imbalances caused by mass immigration and demographic shift.
Mainland Britain is a beautiful island, but one that can only comfortably support a certain size of population – before we cram any more people in, we must make sure that our population can be safely and comfortably housed – targets for huge numbers of houses in former flood-plains across the south-east of England are simply unrealistic.
We must also put more effort into the protection of our environment, and that means better planning, and more considerate use of our planet’s resources.
In my area, northern Enfield, I am particularly keen to prevent further development in our Green Belt. This band of greenery around London is essential to the quality of life of all Londoners, and we must minimise development there.
Whilst I understand the need for new housing, I believe that this must be carefully-balanced against environmental considerations, and I will personally resist further building in the area.
Bridleway through Whitewebbs Park in Enfield from Pete’s Walks