Last week, as the mercury started to rise in the UK, and sober weather-watchers warned that, for the first time ever, temperatures might reach 40°C in the UK, the default position of TV’s weathermen and women was to talk of records being broken, as though extreme heat was some kind of Olympic sporting event, and the plucky British weather was some sort of super-athlete, whose ‘achievement’ was to be celebrated.
Let’s be clear: there’s nothing to celebrate about temperatures reaching 40°C in the UK, as was recognised when Grahame Madge, a spokesman for the Met Office, said, “We’ve just issued a red warning for extreme heat for Monday and Tuesday which is the first such warning ever issued. The warning covers an area from London up to Manchester and then up to the Vale of York. This is potentially a very serious situation.”
While the news triggered widespread warnings about the impact of the heatwave on people’s health, almost none of the coverage focused on the underlying reasons for the heatwave, and it was only the severity of the forecast that, for a few days at least, stopped tabloid newspapers from running the ‘Scorchio’ headlines that they usually resort to when summer heat hits the UK. Perhaps they had finally recognised the severity of the situation via a comment by Penny Endersby, the chief executive of the Met Office, who said, “Here in the UK we’re used to treating a hot spell as a chance to go and play in the sun. This is not that sort of weather.”
Yesterday, however, The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid rag of hatred and denial, brought even that temporary break to an end with the tagline, ’It’s Super Scorchio’, and the headline ‘Hotter than the Sahara’, irresponsibly superimposed on a photo of a beach full of people frying in the sun.
While the media are to blame for not having generally taken increasing temperatures seriously enough over the last two decades, it should be noted that they are also reflecting a long-held British belief that heatwaves are unarguably a good thing, a pay-off for us having to ‘endure’ cold weather, rain and that bane of Britishness — regularly overcast skies — for so much of the year.
However, when the heat becomes homicidal — and astute climate campaigners point out that current temperatures are already close to temperatures that, just a few years ago, we were warned of as what we should expect by 2050, if urgent action to tackle our greenhouse gas emissions is not undertaken — alarm bells ought to start ringing, with a ferocity that we have never previously had to acknowledge.
And yet life continues largely as normal. Cars and lorries still choke the roads, at the weekend another massive cruise ship was moored in Greenwich, and the obsessive consumer distractions of everyday life continue as though there is nothing to worry about.
At some level, most of us know that this is no ordinary heatwave, and know that the alarm bells are ringing, so how do we explain our paralysis?
Beyond the scenario outlined above, another reason for inaction would seem to be that no one wants to be — or likes — a ‘downer.’ People in general, it seems to me, want to ‘look on the bright side’, and are largely averse to doom-mongers in their midst. This has probably always been a helpful social mechanism, but in recent decades it has been deliberately fostered by the cheerleaders for rampant consumerism, who have actively sought to make people self-obsessed, and with a sense of extraordinary entitlement that has eroded our ability to properly comprehend and respond to the climate crisis — the sense of entitlement regarding driving, flying and supporting ‘fast fashion’ being relevant examples.
Added to this, the neoliberal machine of contemporary existence has also infiltrated the world of psychology, suggesting that anger — at official indifference to the scale of the climate crisis, for example — is a sign of some sort of maladjusted personality, rather than a logical conclusion reached by examining the state of the world objectively.
Given the scale of the unfolding climate disaster — in which, alarmingly, climate scientists find their appropriately apocalyptic messages either sidelined or ignored — the answer lies either with us, the people, or with our governments, and yet, on both fronts, an even vaguely commensurate response to the scale of the already unfolding disaster is sorely lacking.
Disastrous government failures
The government, of course, bears the major blame for our inaction — a blame shared with other major governments around the world. In 2015, after over 20 years of climate summits established the need for urgent cuts to greenhouse gas emissions to keep the world habitable, the countries of the world agreed, in Paris, to implement measures intended to keep the temperature rise since the start of the Industrial Revolution to below 2°C — and preferably to 1.5°C.
Despite this, however, actions failed to match the fine words, and by October 2018 the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was obliged to issue a startling report declaring, in no uncertain terms, that we had just 12 years left to limit global warming to 1.5°C, beyond which, as the Guardian described it, “even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.”
The publication of the IPCC report coincided with the arrival of two organizations committed to holding governments to account — the School Strike for Climate movement initiated by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, and Extinction Rebellion, a group of British activists who urged governments to “tell the truth” about climate change, and who engaged in non-violent direct action to get their point across.
Both movements succeeded, briefly, in driving the climate crisis to the top of the political agenda. Governments and councils declared “climate emergencies”, and in numerous countries a majority of people recognized climate change as a major concern, but, yet again, official action completely failed to match the scale of the concern. Although the sudden arrival of Covid-19 provided a glimpse of what a lower-impact existence could look like, by November 2021, when the UK hosted the COP26 climate summit, the key finding was that still not enough was being done.
Emissions, it transpired, were still rising, and renewed efforts had to be made to try to get countries to commit to halving emissions by 2030, as a huge and necessary step towards reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
Where are the 7% a year cuts in emissions across the entire economy?
And yet, eight months later, as much of the world has been gripped by almost intolerable temperature rises, as wildfires rage in France, Spain, Portugal and Greece, and as temperatures in Europe are reaching, or exceeding 40°C, no progress has been made to initiate the 7% cuts per year in emissions that are required to reach the 2030 target.
Logically, every greenhouse gas-emitting aspect of the economy should already have cut emissions by 3.5% since January, and yet nothing has happened — either here in the UK or anywhere else in the world’s leading economies, where the push for change needs to begin.
Some leader, somewhere, needs to stand up and say, “You won’t like what I’m going to do, and you may well not vote for me the next time you have the opportunity, but by then the reasons for my actions will be clear. We’re implementing measures that will immediately cut car and lorry use by 7%, and that will cut construction sites by 7%, along with all the polluting industries that are required for construction; in particular the concrete industry. We will shut our cities to cruise ships, and we will cut flights by 7%. We will cut the global transportation of goods on vast container ships, and on planes, by 7%. We will cut meat production by 7%, and we will stop deforestation. We will stop the creation of single-use plastic tomorrow, and we also commit to no new fossil fuel extraction whatsoever. These measures are just the start, and every year from now on we will cut all of the above by a further 7%.
“These are system changes that no one with power and wealth wants to see, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and the times have never been as desperate as they are today. Climate scientists have been warning us, with mounting desperation, that only profound system change can save life on earth, and as the heatwaves and wildfires are showing us — right here, right now — the situation is now so grave that the disastrous conditions that we hoped were years way, or even decades away, are beginning to make themselves felt in ways that will only get worse, and with alarming speed, unless we make these changes now.”
Will anyone do it? Will the media finally recognize that there is only one story that needs to be on their front pages, and in their news reports every single day? And will we, the people, recognize that, in the face of persistent inaction, it is up to us to start mobilizing, to find ways to take action ourselves, if our leaders continue, so dismally, to fail us? As UN Secretary General António Guterres explained yesterday, “Half of humanity is in the danger zone, from floods, droughts, extreme storms and wildfires. No nation is immune. Yet we continue to feed our fossil fuel addiction. We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands.”