The danger posed by heatwaves in Europe should be taken more seriously. On the continent, the headlines are about forest fires. In the UK, the story is about the country grinding to a standstill. Both views mask a deadly truth. High levels of heat are a killer, one seen retrospectively in the data on excess deaths and hospital admissions. It was only in 2008 that statisticians concluded that as many as 70,000 people died as a result of a heatwave in Europe in 2003. By foolishly telling people to “enjoy the sunshine” Dominic Raab, the UK’s deputy prime minister, proved that there is no challenge he would not rise to.
It is disappointing that the next UK prime minister will be chosen by a Tory party membership that cares very little about dealing with the climate emergency. Global heating will make lethal summer temperatures more common and more extreme. In the cabinet, Alok Sharma remains a rare Tory voice of reason. It is a worry that at least one of the contenders in the Tory party leadership race thinks that the choice for Conservatives is either to be a party of net zero or a party of low taxes.
Any leading politician who thinks this trade-off is right – especially during what could be record-breaking heat in Britain – is not fit to be prime minister. However, this may not be the biggest problem the world faces. Joe Biden had a plan to put the United States on to a path that was an improvement on Donald Trump’s antagonism, but it was not good enough. The United Nations warns that limiting global heating to 1.5C is necessary to avoid the worst of the climate crisis’s impacts. But Mr Biden put the US on track to 2C. However, even this modest target was opposed by Republicans and centrist Democratic politicians. Last week, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who took more campaign cash from the oil and gas industry than any other senator, sunk Mr Biden’s climate agenda.
The US accounts for less than 5% of the current global population but is responsible for a fifth of greenhouse gases. That the world can burn itself to the ground because West Virginia’s economy runs on fossil fuels is yet more proof of how anachronistic US democracy is becoming. Pursuing net zero policies will not stall economic growth or fuel inflation. But it will lead to political realignments. That ought to be a warning for voters in Britain. Mr Biden’s plan was for investment in green technologies. However, in states such as West Virginia, voters seem suspicious about economic transformations after industrial jobs disappeared and never came back. They cling to what they know: oil, coal and gas.
In Britain, Boris Johnson won in 2019 with an electoral coalition that included former Labour heartlands seized in part by the idea that they could be levelled up by potentially switching from carbon intensive industries – at a greater risk from cutting emissions to net zero by 2050 – through decarbonisation. Some of Mr Johnson’s potential successors unscrupulously signalled that this might mean taxing rich southerners – who are disproportionately represented in the Tory membership that decides the leadership – to pay for the north’s transformation. Hence the hints that net zero targets could be dropped. It is the mark of an unprincipled rogue to say anything to get ahead. Britain does not need a leader who will fail to rise to the existential challenge of the climate emergency.
July 19, 2022 at 12:16AM Editorial