Climate change wasn’t hot news in 1976, recalls newshound Roger Ratcliffe

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This is officially Britain’s hottest summer since the oft-cited swelterthon of 1976 which, I am guessing, a fair number of readers either don’t remember or at the time weren’t even a glint in their sunshades-wearing parents’ eyes.

As a junior newshound in Leeds I was given the task of writing about the weather week after blistering week. The drought eventually lasted three months and at its height the mercury climbed above 32C on 15 consecutive days.

One assignment was to dust down the old hippie Summer of Love slogan “Save Water, Bath With A Friend” after 750,000 Yorkshire homes had their supplies cut off and emergency standpipes began to appear in streets. “Ratcliffe,” the editor summoned me to his desk. “Go out and find people who are helping the drought effort by taking baths together.” And so through the streets of Leeds city centre I went, asking passers-by if they were getting ’em off with friends to stop us all dying of thirst. No one admitted to this supreme act of selflessness, although there were several winks. While there, I came across a reporter from a rival newspaper frying an egg on the pavement outside Leeds Town Hall. It was that hot.

Among the heatwave’s consequences British Rail was barred from washing its trains, which came as a huge shock to a nation blissfully unaware that trains had ever been washed. And industry had to curtail the working week to save water, meaning that millions of laid-off employees had no choice but to go home and get out the deck chairs. Those were grim times.

There was a biblical-scale invasion of aphids, tiny black flies, followed by a population explosion of feasting ladybirds, and I remember a thick red carpet of ladybirds covering every inch of road in Hull while a team of Morris dancers merrily crunched all over them.

This year’s wildfires invite most comparisons with the 1976 summer. Huge tracts of the North York Moors burned for weeks, and archive footage of the blazes is shown whenever 1976 is mentioned. It’s safe to predict that 2018’s fires on Saddleworth Moor will become enduring images of the current heatwave.

But these pale in comparison to the catastrophic fires in Greece and wildfires that have destroyed Swedish forests above the Arctic Circle, while the UK’s temperatures in the low thirties are still well short of the 42C reached in Japan’s heatwave that has killed more than 60, and the 48.9C recorded on 7 July at Chino near Los Angeles.

With all this going on, it’s hard not to see more evidence of global warming. In 1976, though, those two words had still to meet. One yellowing cutting in my album from that period, however, was an interview with a boffin at the World Meteorological Organisation who predicted hotter trends because of a layer of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere which “will only disperse when alternatives to coal and oil fuels are found”. Back then, this story didn’t even make the front page.

While I think the UK’s heatwave of 2018 is not in itself conclusive evidence that it turned out to be true, the wider global picture is surely alarming, particularly when the government has just green-lighted fracking operations for shale gas in Lancashire.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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