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3 August 2018

The global heatwave will change politics – and not just in the future

The hot weather across the globe will have political consequences right now, and not just in 2030. 

By Stephen Bush

As you will not have failed to notice, it is unusually hot for the time of year. And you will have noticed that whether you, like the majority of New Statesman readers, are in the United Kingdom, or you are one of our readers in Japan, Italy, the United States, South Africa or elsewhere around the world.

There has been some discussion of the longterm political consequences of the our changing climate. Although next summer may well be cooler than this one, the scientific consensus is that global temperatures will continue to increase year on year. However there will also be short-term consequences to this year’s heatwave.

The first is that food prices will increase and do so fairly quickly. The cost will be driven both by lower production of goods people buy in shops – such as milk and other dairy products – and lower production of goods that farmers need to produce food, including straw, which has been hit by two things: the cold weather at the start of the year and the drought now. 

One of the electoral problems that Brexit creates for the Conservative Party is that a non-trivial group of people who voted for them in 2015 are not only opposed to their Brexit strategy, but inclined to blame most economic misfortune on the Leave vote. It is true that the Leave vote has already weakened the British economy and made food prices higher – but it is also true that if the next recession is triggered by dodgy investments in Tokyo, a crucial electoral bloc will still blame it on Theresa May’s Brexit decisions.

Rising food prices is an area where those campaigning for the United Kingdom to stay or rejoin the European Union are on strong ground – voters have noticed it and they are beginning to draw the link between that and Brexit.

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Among those voters who are not motivated by opposition to Brexit, rising food prices are bad news for the government anyway as, obviously, if your food bills rise, you have less money left over once you have paid for enough to eat. That will increase the pressure on wages and the political strain on the government.

But the global heatwave is not unalloyed good news for the government’s opponents, whether they be Remainers or the Labour party leadership. One other consequence, with temperatures in various parts of Africa hitting 50 degrees celcius, will be an increase in the number of people making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Europe. Although the refugee crisis was not directly referenced in much of the Leave campaign, it formed an important subtext to Vote Leave’s anti-immigration messaging.

It also helped fuel the rise of various nativist parties across the European Union, which will also further complicate the political calculations made by the EU27 as the Brexit talks enter their final phase.

All of which is a dispiriting reflection on how our politics will adapt to a changing climate in coming years. We have already seen how pressures on wages and relatively small movements across the globe have led to major disruptions. It doesn’t bode well for our long-run ability to live in a warmer world.