White was always the colour of Christmas for me when I was a young boy in NYC and Western Europe. It certainly was when my father grew up in Northern Canada. Not so for my mother growing up in Egypt. It never has been for my wife or 4 nieces – all born and raised in Australia. When my family moved to London in the early-70s, snow at Christmas-time was rare. When we moved to Australia a couple of years later, the whole summer-time Christmas thing was hard to deal with. In some ways, it still is.
Even weirder for me growing up were the Xmas trips abroad. When I was 9, we visited my grandfather in Uganda only a few miles from the Equator. A couple of years later, I spent Christmas in the Alps in Europe. In my teens, we spent a couple of December/January vacations near Cape Town, South Africa. Tropical and summer holidays just didn’t seem to belong at Christmas-time.
The weather all over the world has changed a lot over my lifetime. 40 years ago, summer and winter were very distinct and predictable seasons in the US, EU and Australia. There was a rhythm to the seasons and the calendar was the metronome. For the last 10 summers in Australia, water-shortage is the key theme. In Europe and America, heat-waves and storm seasons top the news. Last year – North & South – there was hardly any ski season at all.
The last time we spent Christmas in Europe was 2003. The summer prior, there was a heat wave that killed people in Paris. The Christmas prior to that, ski-fields in Switzerland at 2000m were brown. Late December and early January 2003 was a wonderful time to be near the Italian border in SW Switzerland. Over a metre of snow fell in one night. The resorts all turned on a great set of festivities in a picture-postcard surrounding. The colours of Christmas were all those of the traditional Northern holiday season.
Climate change and Christmas time are now colliding together. The UN Conference on Climate Change held in Bali this week is a major focus all over the world. There’s a particularly sharp focus on it here in Australia. The new federal government elected a week or so ago had ratified the Kyoto Protocol as its first act. The new Prime Minister leads Australia’s delegation in Bali. The new Minister for Climate Change and Water said on the radio this morning that this puts Australia in a position to lead in the discussions on a post-Kyoto treaty. In Bali, the announcement that Australia was ratifying Kyoto was met with thunderous applause.
UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Mr.Yvo de Boer in Bali December 3, 2007
Meanwhile, back in Switzerland, the bankers have made it very difficult for the tourism industry to invest in any primarily ski-oriented infrastructure below 2000m. It’s more than a reaction to a bad 2006/7 season; it’s the financial services side to climate change concerns. That makes the resorts with ski-fields 2500-4000m all the more desirable, both as a destination for skiers and an opportunity for investors and financiers. I wonder how long it will take before plowing vast amounts of money into marginal ski fields in Australia and New Zealand dries up.
The talk-fest in Bali and the decision of Swiss Bankers has more in common than Christmas-time. International commercial sentiment is hungry for certainty on the way forward on climate change policy and legislation. The insurance industry in the US is now a huge force to be reckoned with in this context. I guess Cyclone Katrina really brought the financial cost into relief for them. The human cost of a broken relief effort by the government agencies was certainly well-publicised by Al Gore and the media.
A post-Kyoto world will be another factor changing the colours of Christmas. The insane consumer spending in developed economies may be curtailed by cost factors of environment being priced into globally produced merchandise. Made in China could become carbon-anathema, for moral, social and political reasons, regardless of cost and price. President Bush must be feeling very isolated this Christmas.
For me, I hope there’s still snow at Christmas for some years to come somewhere where I can celebrate it as I used to when I was a boy. This year, we’re going back to a place I love. I remember it as a boy with all the hope and promise of Christmas morning. I have some very fond recent memories too – my 40th birthday and a trip 3 years ago. I’m sure I’ll bring back good memories from this trip too. A white Christmas is a privilege.
We’re going back to that place for my birthday in Feb. Been there a few times in the last 10 years – Feb 2001, Mar 2005 and Dec 2007. Be interesting to reflect on all the changes in the last decade when we’re there.
I remember feeling like something was going to change on New Year’s Eve 2007. We had a very frank, open & enlightening conversation with a Swiss Banking executive who was drinking too much champagne. He told me his bank wasn’t going to make any money in 2008 for the first time in over 150 years. That was a disturbing premonition that came true during the GFC.
Since then, Christmases haven’t been that merry in the US, EU & Japan. Chamonix in Dec 2008 was very glum. Aspen in Feb 2009 was positively depressed. I expect a little village in south-western Switzerland on the Italian border to be a bit better off by Feb next year. We’ll see. There’s certainly enough snow around in Europe this year…