Climate change epiphany

As you packed up the baubles and tinsel on Twelfth Night, did you pause to wonder what Christmas would be like without Christmas trees? Bringing evergreens indoors at the winter solstice pre-dates the Christian festival, but the recent discovery of a tree pest in the UK is a reminder that traditions don’t last for ever. Let’s make 2019 the time for a climate change epiphany … with the help of a small beetle.

I’ve been a chorister since the age of 12, so I’ve sung ‘We Three Kings’ at countless Christmas carol services, but this year the choral society I sing with sang a version of the story written by H. W. Longfellow and set to music by English contemporary composer Chris Williams. ‘Three Kings Came Riding’ is a stunning piece and I highly recommend it for mixed-voice choirs. Beyond carol singing and taking down my Christmas decorations, I can’t say that I’ve ever given much thought to the word ‘epiphany’, but it’s what the world needs right now.

To paraphrase the Oxford English Dictionary:

  • Epiphany: 1. the Magi (three wise men) visit the infant Jesus; also, the festival commemorating this on 6 January. 2. a moment of sudden and great revelation.

A seasonal climate change story

In 2018 I edited around 1.5 million words, most of which were about climate change or closely related matters. But I want to tell you about one particular story that recently crossed my desk. It stands out from the rest not only because it’s a reminder that we’re running out of time to get a proper grip on anthropogenic carbon emissions, but also because the name of the little gremlin involved is highly relevant to the work I do.

Ips typographus is a tiny beetle with a voracious appetite for something that’s an essential part of our Christmas celebrations – spruce trees. The eight-toothed spruce bark beetle, which is a serious pest of the spruce tree species across continental Europe, was found in a woodland in Kent in November 2018.

Forestry Commission England was quick to stress that the beetle is not a serious risk to home-grown Christmas trees such as Norway spruce (because it generally attacks older and weakened or damaged trees), but the discovery of this pest in the United Kingdom illustrates how climate change helps pesky creatures move to new chomping grounds and underlines the interconnectedness of our modern world.

This little beetle is one of many invasive species that threaten natural resources, and pests that destroy trees are a major cause for concern because arboriculture (the cultivation of trees and shrubs) is generally considered to be one of the best ways to both enhance our natural environment (and human wellbeing) and sequester greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Not only that, timber from fast-growing species such as spruce is the mainstay of sustainable construction projects, as championed in the UK by Wood for Good (among others).

Photo of damaged spruce trees caused by Ips typographus

It’s all in the name

I might not have paid special attention to a news story about the ‘eight-toothed spruce bark beetle’, but while proofreading a client’s newsletter Ips typographus leapt out at me: its name touches on all the aspects of my editorial life.

The genus Ips are beetles in the family Curculionidae (true weevils). They are commonly known as ‘engravers’ because of the patterns of damage they cause by burrowing into the inner bark of softwood to create ‘egg galleries’ (see images).

The species name Ips typographus incorporates the concept of ‘engraving’, presumably from the Modern Latin word typographus. That word has apparently existed in scholarly Latin since approximately 1610 (according to Merriam-Webster online) from the Greek/Latin roots typos (meaning ‘impression’) and graphia (meaning either ‘writing’ or ‘study of’).

Typography is something that all editors know a little (or, for some, a lot) about, and type on pages, whether made of paper or virtual is literally my stock-in-trade.*

So of course the name of that pest made me think twice.

But according to one sourcetypographus may also have applied to the fields of architecture, topography and surveying. And two out of three of those fields are where a substantial portion of my editorial work lies. Earlier in 2018, for instance, I wrote a lengthy white paper for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) about the UK infrastructure sector; and over many years I’ve written, edited or proofread materials for architects (via RIBA and others). And bringing all that together, in October 2018 I reported on an event at University College London, where construction industry and climate change researchers joined together to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Climate Change Act.

2018 was the year I marked 30 years since I graduated in Physics and Music (Joint Hons). Back then ‘chaos theory’ was just becoming more widely known, particularly through James Gleick’s book Chaos: Making a New Science, which I bought in paperback with one of my first grown-up pay cheques. The public perception of chaos theory and its connection to climate change is largely the responsibility of that book, which popularised the ‘butterfly effect’ originally coined by the American meteorologist Edward Lorenz – the robust metaphor that a butterfly flapping its wings causes minor perturbations in airflow that could ultimately result in a tornado on the other side of the world.

Eight-toothed spruce bark beetles may not be as pretty as butterflies, but they’re every bit as important a reminder that actions always have consequences.

The holly and the beetle

Many of you reading this article will be well aware of the risks that climate change poses for us all, but for every one of you there are thousands more who either don’t know or don’t care. It’s up to all of us to keep on keeping on – raising awareness and doing what we can to put pressure on national governments and international bodies to get a grip on greenhouse gas emissions.

When I began working on climate change publications the year 2020 was often used as a major target for energy efficiency projects. Then, it seemed a long way off; now, it’s only 12 months away.

Another beautiful carol in Chris Williams’s Nowell! Nowell! collection that I enjoyed singing this Christmas used sixteenth-century lyrics to chart the passing of the seasons ‘Green growth the Holly / So doth the Ivy’. If we act now, we can help to ensure that future generations will know the pleasure of bringing the holly and ivy indoors for the solstice season.

So, taking the beetle Ips typographus as a reminder of the urgent need for action, let’s cross our fingers and work together for a global climate change epiphany in 2019.

Happy New Year

Illustration of Ips typographus, the eight-toothed spruce bark beetle

* ‘stock’ is also printers’ terminology for paper, and it’s the word for the woody stem of a tree or shrub.

p.s. I’ll be singing as part of the English Philharmonia Chorus’s performance of ‘Dream of Gerontius’ at London’s Royal Festival Hall on 8 May 2019. Details.


Photo credits:

  1. Temel Gokturk, Artvin Forest, Bugwood.org © licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License. Source: Forestry Images a joint project of The University of Georgia – Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, US Forest Service, International Society of Arboriculture, USDA Identification Technology Program
  2. European spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) © Panaiotidi/Shutterstock.com