When did climate change first become a hot topic? Some might say when the British first started to obsess about the weather. There was a fierce debate about the subject as long ago as 1873 when James M’Nab, the curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, read a paper entitled ‘Climatal Changes’ to the Botanical Society. His argument was that winters were getting milder, and summers less warm, which was making it difficult to grow fruit crops in Scotland. He cites as evidence the ease with which figs, tomatoes and grapes used to be grown outdoors in previous decades. He also recalls how the opium poppy used to be grown successfully, and “numerous women and girls were employed for weeks together collecting the drug”. Tobacco likewise – “the plants were generally strong and vigorous”. This provoked a lively correspondence. R C A Prior wrote: “Mr M’Nab’s admirable paper upon the change of climate, as shown in the ripening of fruit, suggests to me to ask meteorologists whether this may not be accounted for by the reckless destruction of timber that has been going on in France ever since the great Revolution of the last century.”
“The hot air rising from the denuded plains of that country during the summer months would require to be replaced with cool breezes from the Atlantic, and these blowing across England would give us a more insular climate”
Mr Prior was drawing parallels with the experience in America where deforestation was being held responsible for changes in weather patterns. Then, as now, we humans were being held to blame. In the Revolution, the first tree to be felled was the Tree of Liberty. Not a lot has changed.