Climate denial undoubtedly played a part in the unprecedented temperatures we’ve seen across the UK this week. But what failings are to blame, and how do we move forward? Stylist investigates.
This week was one for the history books. Lest we forget, the temperature hit 40.3°C on Tuesday in the UK, making it the hottest day on record, followed by the record-breaking and, quite literally, eye-opening night-time temperature of 25.8°C.
The cause of this unprecedented heat? Yep, the climate crisis, which is making heatwaves more intense, more frequent and more likely, according to scientists.
In a climate undisrupted by humans, it would be “virtually impossible” for UK temperatures to hit 40°C, said Met Office chief scientist Professor Stephen Belcher. But due to climate change, driven largely by greenhouse gases, we could start seeing temperatures above 40°C every three years if emissions remain high, he added.
So, how did we get here?
It’s not a lack of evidence or education that’s led to the extreme conditions we’ve seen this week. “The number one culprit [of the climate crisis] is the burning of fossil fuels. We’ve structured our society around fossil energy, and that’s a difficult, but necessary, thing to change,” Dr Ella Gilbert, climate scientist at the British Antarctic Survey, tells Stylist.
Scientists have been clear on this for decades and 75% of the public are worried about our changing climate according to the Office for National Statistics, but climate change denial continues to thrive among right-leaning political and media establishments.
This week, Conservative MP John Hayes, a former government minister at the climate change department no less, dubbed those taking precautions against the heat as “snowflakes” and “cowards”. Others used the summer heatwave of 1976 – which was less hot than this one and an anomaly for the UK, not part of a global pattern – to dismiss this week’s temperatures as nothing to worry about.
Is there anything we could have done to avoid the hottest day on record? “Early, concerted efforts to prevent climate change worsening would have made the heatwave less likely. But there’s no point dwelling on what we didn’t do – we must use this as encouragement to act today,” Dr Gilbert continues. “The science shows we must increase the ambition of climate action to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.”
Indeed, a lack of political will to change our reliance on fossil fuels is exacerbating the situation, Alanna Byrne from Extinction Rebellion tells Stylist. She says governments are “well aware of the deadly seriousness of the climate crisis” but are continuing to pursue “rampant economic growth that is driving climate and ecological destruction, rather than daring to imagine a new way of living to protect life, and then having the courage to act on it”.
Governments are influenced by fossil fuel lobbyists and a profit-driven mainstream media that “cares more about profit margins than telling people the full truth of what we face, meaning people don’t know the true risk of inaction, the real cause of how we got here or what we need to do about it”, adds Byrne.
Despite all this, governments and companies with the power to effect change aren’t doing anywhere near enough. The UK government continues to approve new oil fields in the North Sea, flying in the face of climate experts’ warnings, and the climate emergency is the bottom priority for Conservative members in the party’s leadership contest.
“The science is clear that policy ambition needs to increase: this is true at the national and international level,” Dr Gilbert says. “There is no time to lose; climate change has to be at the forefront of the political agenda.”
Thankfully, protests by groups like Extinction Rebellion – who this week smashed windows at News UK headquarters over its heatwave coverage – have done a huge amount to raise public awareness of the gravity of the situation. Byrne highlights Extinction Rebellion’s actions in 2019, which pushed the UK parliament to declare a climate emergency, and the millions of school strikers around the world as having kept the climate at the top of the media agenda.
However, she cautions: “It’s important we accept that very little has really changed in the last few years and that it’s going to take a mass movement of millions of people standing together across differences to turn this ship around.”
What the hottest day really looked like
As a country with typically mild weather and winters that can last up to five months, UK infrastructure isn’t designed for the extreme temperatures we’ve seen this week. Less than 5% of homes have air conditioning and the shift to remote working, coupled with public transport chaos, meant many of us were trapped at home on Monday and Tuesday, sweating out of every crevice with nothing but ice and a fan for relief.
Others fared much worse. London’s firefighters declared their busiest day since the second world war, with more than a dozen blazes raging at the same time. Several other fire services declared major incidents across the country, as fires destroyed businesses, houses, schools and churches.
Overheated tracks caused train cancellations, melted tarmac left flights delayed and heatwave-related cases put an already overloaded NHS under further strain, with many trusts being forced to cancel appointments and operations.
Meanwhile, some news outlets presented the extreme temperature as a cause for celebration. A GB News presenter claimed we should “be happy about the weather”, while tabloids posted images of people sunbathing on packed beaches and boasted about the UK being hotter than popular foreign holiday destinations. Climate change and the complicity of governments and companies was characteristically omitted from much of this coverage.
What comes next?
The temperatures may have cooled down slightly, but should we be expecting more heatwaves as standard in the UK? Will this be the coolest summer of the rest of our lives, as many say?
“We know climate change makes heatwaves more frequent, intense and prolonged. The more we warm the climate, the more often we will see deadly heatwaves,” says Dr Gilbert. “In the UK, the Met Office predicts warmer, wetter winters with fewer extreme cold events and hotter, drier summers with more frequent extreme heat events.”
We’ll need to adapt the way we work, build houses and do business to prepare for a warmer future, says Dr Gilbert. “However, there is a limit to how much we can adapt and we must be doing everything we can to prevent the situation from worsening. That means implementing transformational climate policy to curb emissions and reduce our impact on the environment.”
We also need to be supporting each other, checking on neighbours and building community resilience as heatwaves and other extreme weather become more frequent, says Byrne. “But we shouldn’t just stand by and accept this as the new normal. I’d encourage everyone to join a climate movement taking action against the fossil fuel industry and putting pressure on the government.”
Is this week’s weather a turning point from which there’s going back, or is there still hope? “There are no hard-and-fast deadlines in the climate system: the more we do to minimise our impact, the better. Every tenth of a degree and every tonne of CO2 matters,” says Dr Gilbert. “The longer we delay meaningful action, the higher the costs to people and livelihoods.”
Climate justice activist Daze Aghaji believes the biggest hurdle we need to address now is “the current lack of imagination we’re plagued with” when it comes to the climate crisis. “We find it hard to envision a world that flourishes and isn’t dependent on the industries which have provided us with material ‘wealth’,” she tells Stylist.
“I believe we need to reimagine what wealth looks like and means to us. Is it about having all the money in the world while the systems that support life crumble? Or is wealth being able to have access to clean air, good health care and education?”
Although there’s a lot of grief and fear about the climate right now, it’s crucial we don’t let this result in inertia. Aghaji says we’re at a point where either the stories we’ll tell our grandchildren will be about “why the earth is no longer livable in the way it was throughout history” or they’ll be “tales of humanity finding the courage to address some of the hardest issues and creating a world that’s regenerative and full of love and care”. She continues: “I know we can achieve the latter and you should see this is a possibility, too.”