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A world on fire

The climate crisis is an existential threat. Yet as catastrophe looms, politicians remain inert.

By New Statesman

The extreme heat that has engulfed the US, Europe, parts of China and beyond is not an aberration. You could call it the new normal. At every turn we are confronted by apocalyptic scenes: wildfires ravaging California, Spain and Greece, lethal floods in South Korea and Japan, tourists rushing to Death Valley as temperatures near the global record (56.7°C). If you want a vision of the future, imagine ever more extreme versions of these events.

For decades, the world has given us warnings. Twenty-two of the hottest years since records began in 1850 have occurred in the last 23. Since 1950, the number of floods has increased by a factor of 15 and wildfires by a factor of seven. In 2003 an estimated 70,000 people died as a result of a European heatwave. Across the world, five million deaths a year are now linked to abnormally hot and cold temperatures. Climate change is not only a catastrophe for the generations to come – it is one for us today.

[See also: Summer at the end of the world]

At the start of the 2020s it was said that humans may have only a decade left to prevent average temperatures rising by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – the point at which the risk of irreversible and ­catastrophic climate change significantly increases. Yet El Niño – the unusual warming of surface waters in the Pacific Ocean – means this threshold could now be breached as soon as next year. This could trigger a series of climate tipping points such as the collapse of the West Antarctic ice shelf.

Yet in the face of this existential threat, politicians remain inert. Last year’s Cop27 conference in Egypt agreed no new targets or commitments to prevent temperatures exceeding 1.5°C. Based on present trends, they are expected to rise by 2.7°C in the next century. At this level, estimates suggest, 275 million people will be subject to flooding, while more than a quarter of the world’s population will be exposed to extreme drought conditions.

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As the country that launched the Industrial Revolution, the United Kingdom has a special responsibility to address the climate crisis (until 1882, more than half the world’s cumulative carbon emissions came from the UK alone). Yet far from leading, it is regressing.

As a 2022 report by the Climate Change Committee – the body that advises the government – noted, the UK is not on course to meet its own target of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. It has lost its global leadership role by approving a new coal mine in Cumbria and supporting new oil and gas production. And it has made no attempt to imitate the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $375bn of green subsidies,  and the EU’s proposed Green Deal Industrial Plan.

So advanced is the climate crisis that adaptation will be as vital as mitigation. During last year’s record heatwave, when temperatures surpassed 40°C in England for the first time on record, there were 24,316 wildfires and more than 3,000 excess deaths in England and Wales. Britain only produces 16 per cent of its fruit and more than 50 per cent of its vegetables domestically, making it unusually vulnerable to crop failures in Europe.

Yet the Third National Adaptation Plan published by the Conservative government on 17 July promised no significant new funding or legislation. As Julia King, the chair of the Climate Change Committee’s Adaptation Committee, has warned: “The last decade has been a lost decade in terms of preparing for the risks we already have and those that we know are coming.”

Progressives are fond of conjuring utopias, but now they must contend with something else: a dystopian future. In common with the other crises that define this century – great-power conflict, mass migration, pandemics, wage stagnation – climate change will force governments to assume even more responsibility for their citizens’ security and material well-being. The global cost of environmental damage is forecast to be between $300bn and $700bn by 2030. Those who believe that it is possible to maintain “small government” in the face of such threats will soon be mugged by reality.

It will similarly fall to the state to fund the dramatic expansion in renewable energy necessary to achieve a green transition. The market has neither the incentive nor the capacity to deliver change at the speed required.

Each successive global heatwave reinforces a bleak truth: a good outcome is no longer possible. All governments can do now is shelter us from the worst.

[See also: Why climate despair is a luxury]

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This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world