LONDON — Britain’s chickens have gone home to roast.
A still temperate climate gave way this week to extreme heat. “WARMER THAN THE SAHARA”, bellowed the cover page from the aptly titled tabloid The Sun on Monday. Worryingly, it turned out to be a rare example of article accuracy. By mid-afternoon that day, UK meteorologists confirmed that England, Scotland and Northern Ireland had all experienced the highest temperatures of the year so far. Wales got even scarier, breaking its hottest day record not once but twice.
Despite all the problems they pose, temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, tend not to be too disruptive for continental Europeans. But Britain could not cope. Parts of southern England – where the heat was fiercest – warped, literally at times, with reports of ‘melted’ runways halting air traffic. Schools across the country closed, railroads cut service and hospitals canceled routine appointments and surgeries, bracing for heat wave-induced strain on emergency departments.
The British media, never happier than when the weather turns sour, responded with barely concealed delight. Live briefings charted the chaos wrought by rising mercury while celebrity doctors offered insightful advice such as ‘drink water’ on daytime TV. The twittering lifestyle features informed an overheated populace that gazpacho – the cold Spanish soup – could provide short-term relief or, even better, a quick rub with onion juice would ease any discomfort. Social media was full of sunburn advice, from lying down to taking regular cold showers.
As well-meaning as they are, these tips reveal just how fundamentally unprepared the country is to deal with the heat. This kind of weather (tempered by air conditioning, of course) was once something only the wealthy, with their luxury vacations abroad, could afford. Today, thanks to climate change increasing the frequency and severity of heat waves, it is everyone’s common heritage – a far from pleasant experience of suffocating in heat-trapped homes whose burden falls disproportionately on the shoulders of the poor and the elderly.
Britain is melting, and we have nothing more than water-soaked towels and makeshift footbaths to get by.
There is certainly no help from the Conservative government. Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister and one of the few cabinet members not to quit during the successful revolt against Boris Johnson, has urged the public to cultivate “resilience” in the face of the mind-numbing heat. Individuals must adapt, he said, not the state. And by the way, Mr. Raab gleefully told broadcasters, “We should enjoy the sun.”
It is suspected that such resilience would be easier to summon had successive Tory governments not disregarded official warnings to fortify Britain’s infrastructure against the growing threat of extreme heat. In 2021, a government advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change, found that the government was completely failing to protect people from extreme weather. “The UK has the capacity and the resources to respond effectively,” the report said. “Yet he didn’t.”
There’s no sign of that changing anytime soon. In fact, even the government’s rudimentary commitments to fight climate change may soon be undone. As Britain prepared to toast on Sunday evening, the Tory leadership candidates gathered for a televised debate. Amid awkward contests and truly terrible turns of phrase, a common thread emerged: no candidate was willing to make an unqualified commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a pledge from the 2019 Conservative manifesto. already criticized as too little, too late by scientists.
Although Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt said they would support the goal, most candidates worried about the financial cost of an energy transition. Kemi Badenoch, the self-proclaimed ‘anti-awakening’ former equality minister whose leadership bid was endorsed by fascist group Britain First, has gone the furthest. “If we go bankrupt,” she said, “we will leave a terrible future for our children.” Better a smaller state deficit than a habitable planet.
It’s an argument that withers under the merciless glare of the sun. It’s not just that thermometers across the country are showing that the hideous heat of the future is already here. It is also that, according to one estimate, adapting to the climate is up to 10 times more profitable than inaction. Doing nothing makes no human or economic sense.
The partial exception to the equivocal refrain was Rishi Sunak, long seen as a possible successor to Mr Johnson. But although generally more supportive of green policies, Mr Sunak was reportedly reluctant to allocate funds to climate projects when he was finance minister – and appears willing to avoid climate action in the name of fiscal probity. These noncommittal stances won’t hurt his standing in the Conservative leadership race, however. A poll reveals that climate action is the lowest priority for the roughly 180,000 Conservative members who are deciding the country’s next leader.
In such an environment, climate fatalism is understandable. But immediate solutions to extreme weather already exist: plant more trees, build designated cool spaces, and insulate homes to keep heat out rather than in. These are not new discoveries. “The answer”, as Professor Mike Tipton put it, citing ancient Rome’s penchant for fountains and public gardens, “has been there for at least 2,000 years”.
Britons have a choice beyond which household fan to buy, whether we realize it or not. Either we sit and boil like lobsters in a pot, or we force ourselves to face the future that seemed so comfortably distant until, suddenly, it wasn’t.