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Heat Wave: Why Parliament must take heed

Heat wave

Heat wave

Many of us have been sweltering while cooped up in offices this week and (most likely) dreaming about jet-setting away to some tropical destination with long stretches of sand and cool, crystal clear water to dip our feet into. 

Failing that, spreading out on a picnic blanket under any merciful patch of shade would do and is much better for the environment anyhow. Given the fact that temperatures have soared over 30 degrees Celsius in many parts of the UK this week, a heat-health alert has been issued in several UK regions, especially in central, southern and eastern England, with the elderly and vulnerable being warned to stay safe and vigilant. 

While the unprecedented heat is a welcome break for some and an absolute pain for others, it is something that we are most likely going to have to get used to. 

As lead author and Senior Climate Scientist at Met Office, Mike Kendon, reports: “average temperatures for the UK continue to climb, with nearly a degree of warming when comparing the most recent 30 years with the preceding 30-year period”. While one degree Celsius may not seem a lot at first glance, its consequences (including rising sea levels and rising humidity levels) can cost lives, especially when temperatures are increasing at an unprecedented rate that does not match historical patterns. 

The strategy of doom and gloom 

Yet it is likely that in our lifetimes we have read hundreds, if not thousands of statistics about the sorry state we are in. These statistics often have the counterproductive effect of immobilising people into despair. If things are really so bad, then what can I, as one sole person in a world seemingly gone mad, do? Commenting on the effects of scaring people into climate action for The Guardian, eminent climatologist Michael Mann writes that, “doom-mongering has overtaken denial as a threat and as a tactic. Inactivists know that if people believe there is nothing you can do, they are led down a path of disengagement. They unwittingly do the bidding of fossil fuel interests by giving up”. 

Yet if the scare tactic does not work in making us act and the soft approach of not applying too much pressure all at once doesn’t work either for obvious reasons, then we are left with the million dollar question; what does?  For one thing, targeting and blaming individuals for climate change does not work, not only because it can scare them into inaction, but also because it distracts us from the bigger, more systemic problems that can be traced to cultures of consumerism and big corporations.

Who or what is responsible? 

While we can all change our individual behaviour to an extent, from cutting how much we drive and fly, to reducing fast fashion habits to not feeling the urge to renovate our bathrooms and kitchens every five years or so, it is hardly fair or accurate to say that climate change can be curbed by micro-level behavioural changes alone, even if this is what many corporations want you to think. 

As Michael Mann points out, “lifestyle changes are necessary, but they alone won’t get us where we need to be”. Instead, the “coalition of the unwilling”, i.e. those unwilling to act on climate change, but disproportionately responsible for its effects, primarily includes “fossil fuel interests, climate change deniers, [and] conservative media tycoons, working together with petrostate actors like Saudi Arabia and Russia”. Given that 70% of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the burning of fossil fuel, it is this coalition of sorts that should be primarily held accountable. 

Climate change and vulnerable populations 

Yet amid all the confusion and finger-pointing that often leads us nowhere, what we also forget is that the effects of climate change are felt much more acutely by many of the world’s most vulnerable people. 

For example, World Weather Attribution reports how March 2022 was the hottest in India since records began 122 years ago. As USA Today reported, the heat wave caused at least 90 deaths across India and Pakistan and triggered an extreme glacial lake outburst flood in northern Pakistan and forest fires in India

The effects in the Arctic have also been particularly destructive with regards to land habitation, lifestyles and traditional culture, with the Arctic Council primarily representing the concerns of Arctic communities on the world stage to varying degrees of success given the amount of institutional red tape and vested interests in maintaining the status quo.  

Director of the World Resource Institute’s Climate Resilience Practice, Christina Chan argued in Global Citizen, “the world’s poorest communities often live on the most fragile land, and they are often politically, socially, and economically marginalized, making them especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change”. It is difficult and overwhelming to think in terms of how certain lifestyles can affect hundreds of millions, yet it is also sobering and important. 

While it is very challenging to imagine belonging to a community of over seven billion and perhaps impossible, it is also clear that we cannot carry on as we always do. 

The Conservative leadership race 

This is a message that does not resonate with many of the current candidates for the next Prime Minister. While Boris Johnson set a series of ambitious climate goals including reducing green-house gas emissions to net zero by 2050, and aiming for all of the UK’s electricity to come from clean sources by 2035, much work still needs to be done. 

In an article in The Telegraph, current International Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith and Chris Skidmore MP, the current International Environment Minister argued that to abandon the current net-zero policy would entail “digging our electoral grave”. This article comes just one week after Goldsmith tweeted that most of the potential leaders of the Conservative Party “couldn’t give a shit about climate.”

If Goldsmith is right, if not eloquent, then we are left between a rock and a hard place. If we can’t turn to politicians or business leaders for curbing climate change, then we find that essential systemic, structural change is difficult to achieve. However, as always, there is a degree of hope which we can pragmatically channel. We can hold politicians to account at election time and put pressure on them in the times in between. We can make small lifestyle changes, while also remembering that the problem is collective in nature and the fate of the world does not rest on individual shoulders alone. 

Final thoughts 

Firmer, clearer, and more actionable accountability regimes for fossil-fuel burning corporations can only begin with a government that genuinely cares about protecting the environment and is willing to put strict measures in place. 

Yet for sanctions to be effectively enforced, investments in renewable energy need to be significantly increased and sustained and historical ideas about the free market rooting in liberal ideology need to be placed secondary to climate concerns. Climate change is the one issue that should unite parties into acting on the behalf of the common good, and it is also an issue that will not wait until politicians decide to pull themselves together. 

For the time being, our biggest hope is that the next Prime Minister not only claims to, but actually cares, about green policy and that their words match their actions. 

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