The writer is a science commentator
The closing stages of the Conservative leadership contest are coinciding this week with an unprecedented heatwave. On Tuesday, temperatures reached 40C in the UK for the first time, breaking the record of 38.7C set three years ago in Cambridge.
In preparation, the Met Office issued its first red warning for extreme heat and the Health Security Agency raised its heat health warning to an unprecedented level 4, signalling disruption not just to health but also to transport, food, water, energy supplies and the economy. On Sunday, hospitals braced for a rise in admissions, train services were disrupted and schools announced closures. By Monday, Cool Britannia was melting, with the softening runway at Luton airport requiring repair.
Yet, despite the weather warranting an emergency Cobra meeting on Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s would-be successors have largely neglected the issue of climate change, on which the extreme heat has been pinned. While the last five candidates had agreed to honour Johnson’s pledge to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Kemi Badenoch, who was knocked out on Tuesday leaving three, had suggested she was open to delaying it. That critical targets are seen as negotiable by potential future leaders shows that climate scepticism and even denialism has not been fully exorcised from the corridors of power.
Anyone believing that the red heat is a black swan, impossible to foresee or avert, has not been paying attention. Two years ago, in a paper published in the journal Nature, climate scientists estimated that a 40C day would happen once every 100-300 years in the UK. Unmitigated climate change, they calculated, meant that by 2100, it might be every three to four years.
Today, that vision of a sweltering future has become reality. “I thought [40C] might happen later this decade or in the next decade,” said Peter Stott, one of the paper’s three co-authors and professor of detection and attribution of climate change at Exeter university. “I didn’t expect to see it quite as soon as 2022. It’s a shock, to be honest.”
The UK’s predicament is due to a “heat dome”, an area of high pressure stuck in one place, hanging over much of Europe — Portugal, Spain and France are also experiencing record temperatures and wildfires. Heat domes can linger for weeks, allowing the temperature to build continuously without heat being dissipated.
Scientists dismiss comparisons with the UK’s 1976 heatwave, which peaked at just under 36C. Imperial College climatologist Friederike Otto pointed out at the Science Media Centre in London this week that the climate had warmed significantly in the past 46 years, with the top 10 hottest years in the UK since 1884 all coming in the past two decades. “By definition,” Otto said, “’unprecedented’ means that it hasn’t happened before . . . there is no comparison to previously slightly lower temperature records.” In addition, extended heatwaves are everywhere, including India and Pakistan: extreme heat is a global scourge, not an amusing parochial anomaly.
Despite six reports from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change exposing the clear risks of global warming, there are still dark corners where climate science is regarded as contestable. The Net Zero Scrutiny Group of backbench Conservative MPs is one such burrow. The group has cited research from the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a controversial think-tank that disputes the need for climate mitigation and has hosted contrarian speakers.
Stott, who chronicled climate denialism in his memoir Hot Air, believes the NZSG is similarly motivated. The group certainly gives every appearance of trying to scupper the journey to net zero, with members protesting that green levies penalise the vulnerable or that war in Europe and the economic slowdown should come first.
Such arguments, which happen to serve the fossil fuel industry, should leave us cold. Globally, climate change hits the vulnerable hardest. It is the old and young who tend to suffer, their fragile bodies unable to maintain a safe temperature (an estimated 20,000 died in Europe’s 2003 heatwave). Blistering heat damages productivity and worsens inequality: it is the poor who are forced to work outside and without access to air conditioning, and who are the first to go hungry when crops are destroyed through floods and wildfires.
As for the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis, both affect UK voters through a dependence on fossil fuels. For reasons of human health, economic opportunity and planetary survival, future leaders should be accelerating, not pausing, the transition to net zero.