There is no point denying that in the UK many people enjoy themselves when the weather is unusually warm, even as many others feel uncomfortable and in some cases unsafe, due both to the heat itself and what it signals about global heating. Spells of hot weather make sun-lovers feel they have been transplanted to the Mediterranean – where many of us take our holidays. Even now, record-breaking temperatures are still sometimes welcomed, rather than feared as a harbinger of more extreme dangers ahead.
That said, few will welcome the Met Office issuing its first ever “red warning” for exceptional heat on Monday and Tuesday – with unprecedented temperatures of 40C forecast in London and the Midlands, and as far north as Manchester and York. This represents a danger to life, with the risk of illness not limited to vulnerable people. The message is to keep hydrated and to find shade where possible. There are warnings of travel chaos and mobile phone blackouts. Not all parts of the UK are similarly affected; the top temperature in Aberdeen is forecast to be 21C. But there is a real prospect that the all-time high of 38.7C, set in Cambridge in 2019, could be broken.
In one sense the timing is fortunate. Chris Skidmore, the Conservative former minister who chairs a cross-party environment group, has been pushing the candidates for his party’s leadership to spell out their climate policies – and stick with the 2050 net zero target. Four – Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss and, after a wobble, Tom Tugendhat – have explicitly done so. They know that the public remains strongly behind green measures, including renewable energy. Mr Skidmore is organising an environment hustings for Tory leadership hopefuls on Monday. Any candidate prepared to stand up in the middle of a record-breaking hot spell and pledge to weaken climate commitments would be unfit to lead this country.
July temperatures elsewhere in Europe and around the world have been even higher. In Portugal, the heat topped a sweltering 44C as firefighters battled wildfires for days. Alerts were issued in at least 86 Chinese cities, with Nanjing opening underground air raid shelters. Daily temperature records have been broken in the US. In India and Pakistan, from March to June about a fifth of humanity was subjected to almost unimaginably long-lasting extreme heat. Then, it was reported that dehydrated birds were falling out of the sky. The recent collapse of two glaciers in Italy and Kyrgyzstan within a few days, killing several people, is yet another warning.
In the UK, stories of airport chaos have accompanied the hot weather reports, as Heathrow in particular has struggled to cope with the faster-than-expected regrowth of passenger numbers. It now seems clear that too many staff were let go during the pandemic and that airline ticket sales and airport capacity were allowed to get out of sync. Huge queues and sudden cancellations are an unfair burden to put on passengers. Disabled travellers, including the BBC’s Frank Gardner, have described unacceptably long waits on planes for help to disembark.
But while such disorder helps no one, air travel remains one of the most intractable problems of decarbonisation. The Green Alliance thinktank says the options for cutting carbon emissions from aviation are using sustainable fuel, manufacturing zero-emissions aircraft and managing passenger numbers. Without technological breakthroughs, air travel must be curtailed. Ministers should promote rail as an alternative, as the Spanish government is doing with the introduction of free journeys on its state-owned network. Struggling seaside towns might see their economies boosted by this. In the meanwhile, those that are already popular will no doubt be packed this weekend – as sunseekers find ways to enjoy themselves despite their knowledge of the rising threat.
July 15, 2022 at 11:09PM Editorial