On Tuesday 18 July temperatures were forecast to exceed 40°C in parts of the UK. That will beat the record of 38.7°C set in the 2019 heatwave that killed thousands. As a Spanish forecaster warned at the time: “Hell is coming.”
The extreme heat will probably melt and warp rail tracks, and disrupt heat sensitive equipment in power stations and mobile phone masts. Excess deaths will be high. The 2019 heatwave caused 892 fatalities in England according to official estimates. The following year’s three heatwaves caused another 2,556 excess deaths. Thousands of people will have to go to hospital with ailments such as heat stroke and renal failure: the country is already averaging an extra 8,013 hospital admissions a year owing to hotter temperatures, the Office for National Statistics has found.
Nor is Britain experiencing the worst of the heat. In the south of France 16,000 people have been evacuated because of wildfires. Fires also raged in Spain and Portugal, where the temperature reached a record 47°C. This is just a presentiment of the inferno being visited on India and Pakistan, which in March and April had temperatures as high as 49.5°C. As David Wallace-Wells writes in the New York Times, the death-toll from that heatwave might have been much higher were it not for a degree of cultural acclimatisation and preparation for scorching temperatures. But the likelihood of this sort of heatwave is increased 30 times by climate change.
The UK is on a trajectory for the inferno. Last year the Climate Change Committee found that by 2050 the heatwaves of 2018, which caused 863 excess deaths, will be “a typical summer”. By that time the number of heat-related deaths would “more than triple” from the present rate in the absence of adaptation. According to the Met Office, depending on the scale of carbon emissions, summer temperatures could be over five degrees hotter in the UK by 2070. The prospect is growing of daily temperatures exceeding 40°C, which Met Office research published in Nature Communications in 2020 says would be “near-zero in the natural climate”.
[See also: Are extreme heatwaves the new normal?]
We are unprepared for this, probably for the reasons that the UK is also not remotely on course to reach net zero emissions, slashed investment in pandemic preparedness, delayed Covid lockdowns at a cost of potentially tens of thousands of lives, and failed to act on warnings about the safety of Grenfell Tower. Why, for example, as the Climate Change Committee pointed out, are homes are not being built for resilience to high temperatures despite repeated warnings? Why are workplaces not air conditioned, even though Covid-19 made such upgrades necessary to prevent the build-up of viral particles? Why is there no law specifying a maximum temperature at which you can be made to work, despite the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers recommending office temperatures of 20°C? Why can you be baked on the way to work? The buses aren’t air conditioned, and generally offer only the scant defence of ventilation and tinted windows. In 2015, when London temperatures reached 36.7°C, the temperature on a Routemaster bus was recorded at 41°C. The London Underground, which is uncomfortably warm at the best of times, has been known to reach 42°C during a heatwave.
Why, in short, is the only heatwave policy the Heatwave Plan for England, which proposes to control behaviour rather than update the country’s infrastructure? Wherever there has been a choice, neoliberal governments have chosen public squalor, pollution and death. Every “efficiency” that accelerates social and ecological breakdown is dignified by its contribution to “enterprise”, a euphemism for the profitability of the most short-termist, exploitative sectors of capital. Their interests are presumed to be universal, since we are all supposedly “entrepreneurs” at heart. In practice, they merely overlap with those of the owners of small-to-medium sized businesses and lone traders who comprise the spine of the Conservative membership and vote.
The Conservative leadership contest encapsulates the blank-eyed, sociopathic vacuousness of this doctrine. Amid a gruelling climate-induced heatwave, the candidates have been preoccupied by crude transphobic baiting and haggling over tax cuts. On climate change, they have either clung to the net-zero status quo – which, according to the Climate Change Committee, would only achieve 40 per cent of the necessary emissions cuts – or promised to junk even that feeble constraint. Not a single candidate takes the issue seriously. Rishi Sunak has been accused of giving little priority to funding for net-zero transition; Penny Mordaunt has taken cash from Terence Mordaunt and Michael Hintze, a trustee and funder of the climate denying Global Warming Policy Foundation; and Liz Truss leads the parliamentary wing of the Institute for Economic Affairs, which spent decades attacking mainstream climate science. Each of them genuflected to net zero, but spoke of delaying or mitigating climate action. Others went further. Suella Braverman called for the UK to “suspend the all-consuming desire” to achieve net zero. This reflects a months-long drive by a far-right Tory faction whose chairman, Steve Baker, backed Braverman’s campaign. Kemi Badenoch, a sharper ideologue than Braverman, and who is backed by Michael Gove, had claimed that the net-zero target was “arbitrary” and “ill-thought-through” and that she would scrap it, although she has changed her position and now accepts the notional commitment to net zero.
The candidates partly reflect the position of Tory members who, in their denihilism, rank net zero as their lowest priority, according to a YouGov poll for the Times. But the problem is deeper than that. The right has always displayed an excessive, sado-masochistic relish in its slash-and-burn approach to climate change. Even as the right hollers that left-wing activists or the “Green New Deal” are to blame for any ecological blowback, their denial always shades into affirmation: if this is global warming, bring it on! This is already tacit when the Sun tells us, with the feigned chipperness of a jaded redcoat, “It’s Super Scorchio!” Straining to evoke an ancient British idea of fun at the seaside, the cover tells us: “Beaches full as offices and schools shut”. The iconography of beaches, bikinis and barbecues is ubiquitous in the right-wing press.
[See also: Does the UK need new heatwave working laws?]
Over at GB News the exhortation to have fun is explicit as a host tries to cajole the Met Office’s John Hammond: “I want us to be happy about the weather!” As for those who would seek shelter from the heat, John Hayes, the pro-Trump chairman of the Tories’ Common Sense Group, calls them cowards and sneers that “the snowflakes are melting”. Rather as, during the early days of the pandemic, right-wing politicians such as Dan Patrick, lieutenant-governor of Texas, explained how the elderly should gladly die for capitalist freedom, so we’re now effectively being told: get out and enjoy your miserable heat-deaths you cowards!
This could spawn a dangerous, self-reinforcing dynamic. The outright climate denialists are no longer the main problem facing humanity. Rather, futility has become the alibi of fossil capital. If we can’t do anything collectively, then it becomes an individual calculation: if the world is going to hell, the argument goes, at least make sure they don’t raise your fuel duties. The more the right succeeds in blocking effective action, eviscerating democratic constraints on capitalism and even destroying public capacities for human resilience, the more it breeds the very hopelessness and nihilism that empowers it. And the more that grim libidinal economy takes hold, the more urgent it will be to scoff, berate, revile and incite against the care lords and snowflakes who remain sentimentally committed to human survival.