Adapting to hotter temperatures is sensible – but ignoring their causes is dangerous
— The NHS is experiencing a “summer crisis”, with increased emergency admissions and uncomfortable conditions in buildings not equipped for the heat, while the Met Office has warned that the UK temperature record of 38.5°C could be broken on Friday. Authorities in Greece are dealing with the aftermath of devastating wildfires that killed at least 85 people, while efforts to control blazes in Sweden and in California continue. In Japan, 23,000 people have been taken to hospital in the past week and the weather described by officials as a “disaster”. In Algeria, a new African record has been set of 51.3°C.
Weather systems are highly complex and scientists are cautious about assigning specific causes to one-off events. But experts are already pointing to global warming as a driver for the current heatwave, with a study based on computer models and temperature data due to be published by scientists at Oxford University on Friday. Meanwhile, a new report from the environmental audit committee points to the likelihood of more frequent heatwaves in future, and the UK government’s failure to prepare adequately for them.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the heatwave, as many people are. Such a long spell of warm weather is extraordinary and, for sun lovers, a treat. No doubt many are hoping it doesn’t break before they take their holidays. But whether or not any more records are broken, or wildfires ignited in the coming weeks, the claim that rising temperatures have nothing to do with the global state of extreme weather must not go unchallenged.
When the former US environment secretary Scott Pruitt was asked about climate change following Hurricane Harvey last year, he said that it was not the right time to talk about it. The opposite case is that the aftermath of an extreme event, when the atmospheric conditions have become the news, rather than the backdrop to the news, can be a “teachable moment”, when different kinds of conversations become possible.
One of those conversations is the one about adaptation. Since some effects of climate change are now inevitable, we must deal with them. As this week’s committee report says, building regulations must be altered to ensure heat resilience, and new measures must be brought in to improve drainage and water efficiency.
The public information campaign that the committee calls for is even more urgent. The 2008 Climate Change Act commits the UK government to reducing emissions by 80% of their 1990 levels by 2050. The latest British Social Attitudes survey showed that more than 90% of British people accept that climate change is happening. But only around a quarter describe themselves as very worried about this. Politicians, along with journalists, scientists and others, have a responsibility to make sure that people know what to expect and can make informed decisions – for example, about how to heat and insulate their own homes.
Treating the symptoms of climate change makes no sense if the causes are not tackled at the same time. British laws – as well as the Paris agreement – commit the UK government to doing this, meaning decarbonisation of the electricity supply, heating and transport. These measures have cross-party support, but commitment by politicians is inconsistent. Just a few weeks ago, parliament approved a new runway at Heathrow, a decision that now faces a legal challenge. This week, the government gave approval for fracking in Lancashire, enraging all those who fear that this is proof – combined with slashed solar subsidies, the de facto ban on new onshore wind farms, and the rejection of the Swansea bay tidal scheme – that the government is unenthusiastic about renewables.
Enjoy the sun if you can. We only live once and in countries with temperate climates such as the UK not all of the effects of climate change are necessarily harmful. Domestic tourism could even benefit. But don’t lose sight of the suffering caused by higher temperatures. In all our hands rests the future of life on earth.
by Editorial | The Guardian