Over the course of Britain’s sweltering summer, the landlord of the building inhabited by the Observer periodically informs us that our air conditioning is undergoing an “automated controlled shutdown” because the weather has become so hot and humid that the system is at risk of damaging itself. So just when you really need cooling air, you can’t have it. One to be filed under: you couldn’t make it up. This is not uncommon. The offices, factories, homes, roads and railways of Britain were designed on the assumption that it is a country of blessedly temperate conditions, immune to extremes of heat and cold. When people say that Britain is not built to withstand a sizzling summer, this is more literally true than they may know. We can avoid thinking about what this intense heatwave could mean for the future of the planet by taking careless refuge in the consolation that others are having it much worse. The devastating wildfires in Greece have killed at least 87 people and ignited national fury about the state’s inadequate response. Japan has declared a national disaster after more than 20,000 people were taken to hospital in a week. Algeria has reported the highest temperature ever reliably recorded in Africa: 51.3C. That’s hot. Forests are blazing within the Arctic Circle. That’s not usual. There is a school of thought that contends that politics is fundamentally incapable of addressing this challenge. It is just too overwhelming for politicians and electorates to handle. The problem is so complex and so global that it induces fatalism in the leaders and the led. I find this view to be self-defeating and self-harming. There are things that governments can do and they have even managed to achieve some of them. There are now days when Britain meets all its energy needs without burning any coal, something that hasn’t happened since before the Industrial Revolution and a development that would have astonished earlier generations. We produced more electricity from renewable and nuclear energy in 2017 than from gas and coal, making it the first year that low-carbon resources met most of the country’s demand for power. Stronger action will require politicians ready to drive global warming up the agenda, lead public opinion and take bold decisions, many of which will be tough and some of which will not be popular with everyone. This politicians will do only if they genuinely care about climate change or are made to care because a critical mass of their voters tell them that they want something done. The most recent British Social Attitudes survey reports that more than 90% of Britons agree that climate change is a fact, but the rub is that only around a quarter describe themselves as very worried about it and only a minority feel a responsibility to reduce it. Climate change struggles to get into the top 10 of issues that voters tell pollsters that they are most bothered about and almost never reaches the top three. This means that, while most Britons appreciate that there is a threat, not enough grasp its scale or think that it ought to be a serious priority for the government. That could change. It certainly ought to change and is more likely to change as extreme events become a more regular occurrence. Britons have been accustomed to the weather forecast coming after the news. For most of us, for most of the time, the only information we required was whether we needed to take a brolly with us. Britons may adjust their attitudes and demand a lot more leadership and action from their politicians, when the weather leads the news.
Observer 29th July 2018 read more »