climate change

Opinion: UK’s terrifying heatwave – when the reality of the climate crisis hits home

Photo credit: Copernicus.

By Anders Lorenzen

Many have too often linked the climate crisis to an environmental problem. And even the most well-read news outlets continue to do so and in effect make it something we can just deal with when it is convenient for us. This has caused much delay and many U-turns in dealing with the by far single biggest policy issue of today. 

And of course, climate change is linked to many environmental issues such as loss of species. But it is also strongly linked to the possible collapse of society with no link whatsoever to environmental issues.

For those of us who have been following the UN climate negotiations in recent years, they have largely been talked about as a failure, a failure in bringing all the world’s nations together to deal with these issues. And at the same time, the facts of our failure as a society to deal with the problem have been demonstrated by the ever-growing carbon emissions. And even with ever-increasing and sophisticated green technology, we are not making a big enough dent in bringing emissions down.

And so, no one can be very surprised that in recent years we have seen an acceleration of climate impacts due to the points mentioned above.

But are we really taking it seriously enough? The UK’s national broadcaster, the BBC, can hardly bring itself to mutter the word climate change as we see one climate-linked weather event after the other.

Extending the window of heat

I have previously written about how London in the summer is becoming a more difficult place in which to live. And while London has generally always been able to boast of good and decent summers, with some rare exceptions, there is no doubt that the UK’s capital city is hotting up. Summers start earlier and are lasting longer, and the periods of uncomfortable hot days are more extreme and more prolonged with many hot and uncomfortable nights. It is no longer fair to assume that the summer lasts from June to August. I have now come to expect to experience hot spells that can hit us like avalanches anytime from April all the way to early October.   

What was once a rare weather event, we now seem to have at least one heatwave every year, and each year it seems to become more prolonged and more extreme. 

And we are now at it again. On Tuesday the 19th of July the UK broke its all-time high temperature passing the 40 degrees mark for the first time in the country’s history with 40.3 degrees C measured in Surrey. It is not just that the record was narrowly beaten, it was beaten by a huge margin of nearly 2 degrees C. On that day a total of 34 temperature records were broken in the country. The ten days prior to that the temperature hardly dipped below 28 degrees C. While the heatwave has eased it is hardly cold with temperatures lingering in the mid-high twenties and is predicted to stay like that for some time, and more heatwaves are predicted later in the summer. And it is not just the UK that is impacted, many places in Europe have for the past few weeks been engulfed in a dangerous and extreme heatwave with temperature records beaten in several countries.

How to deal with heat

 Kim Stanley Robinson`s excellent fiction book The Ministry for the Future (published in 2020), opens with an unprecedented heatwave in India that kills millions of people. The story predicts what could happen if political leadership does not significantly increase its ambitions when tackling the climate crisis which becomes so much harder with delays. In the Indian heatwave described in the book, there is nowhere to go, nowhere to run from the sun.  While it is fiction, I can relate to it and it is an absolutely terrifying thought. Our 7th-floor apartment in central London is not built to withstand such heat, to say the least, and the modern design with huge windows from floor to ceiling suck in the heat when it is hot; and once heated it takes several cooler days to get it back to a more manageable temperature. 

For me, climate change is very much about health and how much heat humans can handle. In the brilliant but scary non-fiction book, The Uninhabitable Earth (published in 2019), David Wallace-Wells carefully lays out what happens to the human body when exposed to too much heat over prolonged periods, and what it can do to your general health. 

The future generation

It is one thing is to have to look after yourself and keep cool, but what really scares me is when you have a responsibility for looking after others too.  We have done our best to keep our 15-month-old daughter as cool and as hydrated as possible, knowing how young children are especially vulnerable to extreme heat.  As a parent, I can’t help wondering and worrying about the future. Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gasses (GHG) tomorrow, temperatures will still go up for some time to come with longer, more extreme and more deathly heatwaves in the future, even in London. That is just a fact. The question is just how bad will it be, and what my daughter’s future will look like alongside millions of other children.

I will not write about the solutions to tackling the climate crisis, as I have spent plenty of time talking about this previously as have so many others. But it should be very obvious what this heatwave and the ones that will follow should mean in terms of policy changes and our way of life. 

But I wanted to reflect on how serious this is, and how bad it could be in the future unless we drastically change course.

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