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Political weather

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Mark Twain complained that everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Indeed, we are fascinated by the weather precisely because we can do nothing about it. We can’t predict it, and we can’t change it short of moving to a different climate zone, which is a form of cheating. We can run, and we can try to hide, but in the end we are small, vulnerable creatures marooned on a small planet, and weather is our fate.

The arbitrariness of the weather led our ancestors to assume that it was sent by capricious gods to annoy or punish us mortals, or perhaps for celestial entertainment. This theory has persisted for thousands of years, and it may well be correct. Nineteenth century social philosophers, who knew nothing about political correctness, speculated that climate affects not only our comfort but also our political behavior. They argued that hot weather cultures are less advanced than cold weather cultures, more inclined to dangerous political enthusiasms. It’s hard to sustain a passionate political faith through a northern winter. This gives northerners their cranky, negative disposition, a disinclination to believe anything, especially political manifestos and weather forecasts. The cold, and the anticipation of it, cools our passions all the way down to freezing point. Heat, by contrast, is inflammatory.

If you don’t believe this, watch the television news for a few nights. You will see a lot of political action all around the world — mostly young men rioting, setting fire to things, waving machetes, looting stores, firing guns in the air and generally behaving badly. The scene is so familiar that we tend to glaze over. Where is this particular riot happening? Who can tell? But nine times out of 10 the participants are not wearing overcoats or fur hats or snow boots. They are rather casually dressed, as if for the beach, and this is because the weather is warm. Riots are no fun in a cold climate unless you can arrange to have them indoors.

The theory that moderate temperatures promote moderate politics and vice versa, is simple and satisfying. It helps to explain why, among other things, the idea of liberal democracy planted in the blazingly hot Middle East has as much chance as a snowball planted in a similar place. In that part of the world summer is called the fighting season, rather than the swimsuit season.

But what happens when the weather itself goes crazy? The pattern is broken. Global warming has brought new extremes of heat as well as floods, wildfires, tornadoes and other unpleasant surprises. These violent weather events which, as Mark Twain correctly observed we can do nothing about, create a certain existential uneasiness — and even anger — that is fertile ground for authoritarian politics. A political map of the United States today shows hot weather politics from south to north, with only a few temperate patches. There’s not much moderation anymore, and it remains to be seen whether politics will become yet more extreme as the planet warms up — a daunting prospect — and yet another reason to worry about climate change. Even Canada and Norway are suffering from global warming. It may soon be hard to find any refuge anywhere on this planet where cooler heads may prevail.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.