There was a time when it seemed more likely that hell would freeze over than Boris Johnson would become prime minister. But as the furore over his new government transfixes Westminster, a far greater political crisis rages on. The planet is warming – so much so that London is forecast to reach 39C today. Further north, something terrifying is happening: the Arctic is burning.
High temperatures north of the Arctic Circle have kindled enormous wildfires that are wrecking environmental destruction. Though fires often occur in the summer months in parts of the far north, nothing like this has happened before. New satellite imagery shows wildfires of unprecedented size sweeping farther north than ever. In Alaska and Siberia, these fires cover areas equivalent to 100,000 football pitches – an area of land larger than Lanzarote. In Canada, a fire has broken out that burnt over 300,000 pitches worth of land. The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service has registered some 400 wildfires in Alaska this year alone – with new ones igniting every day.
Because much of this land is depopulated, the fires receive comparatively little attention to those that broke out recently in Catalonia, or the 2018 Attica wildfires in Greece. That fires are taking place in colder parts of the world is an alarming symptom of climate breakdown. Siberia is over 10C warmer than the long-term average registered over 1981 and 2010. Heat has turned a delicate ecosystem into a tinderbox. In parts of Alaska, temperatures have topped 32C. The precious boreal forests that ring the Arctic are burning at a rate unseen in ten millennia.
Many of these fires have been burning since the start of June. As permafrost melts, large tracts of peat are unearthed. Fire ignites the peat, which burns down into the soil, stoking the blaze for months. In turn, this process releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; since 1 June, around 100 megatonnes have been emitted into the surrounding environment – equivalent to the entire yearly emissions of Belgium.
The fires are a parable for the vicious circle unleashed by climate breakdown. Large amounts of CO2 are released by power plants and cars, raising temperatures, leading to more fires, releasing more CO2. This feedback loop is particularly dangerous in the Arctic, which is warming at double the rate of the rest of the world. A warmer Arctic means more snow and ice is melted, robbing the planet of white reflective surfaces and raising the temperature of the earth as more of the Sun’s energy is absorbed.
And so the ice keeps melting. In June, Arctic sea ice was around 11 per cent below average levels, while the amount of Antarctic sea ice was the smallest ever registered for this time of year. As a result of planetary warming, last month was the hottest June the world has ever seen, and the 414th consecutive month with above-average global temperatures. July is expected to be the warmest month ever.
A hotter world is a more dangerous world. Last year’s heatwaves led to a spike in deaths, and the Met Office has concluded that incidents like this are thirty times more likely as a result of climate breakdown. Extreme heat is deadly, with tens of thousands dying in Europe during the 2003 heatwaves. And more heat means more air conditioning, with a large increase in energy use recorded in the UK during the 2018 heat – which, in turn, means more CO2.
But the problem has political consequences that are less easy to see. Heat extremes also affect the pace of soil degradation, which damages food production and can lead to more extreme hunger and famine, accelerating forced migration and conflict. The fine environmental balance is tipping – creating an unstable, dangerous world, of which heatwaves are only the beginning.
This climate of extremes is a new barometer for normality, instituted by the unsustainable economic systems that govern our lives and have led to environmental breakdown.
Climate breakdown is the most significant political crisis we face, and the foundation upon which the politics of the 21st century will be built. It demands a political response that completely reshapes the premises of our economic system. This is why protestors stopped Boris Johnson’s car as it headed to Buckingham Palace, why children continue to pour onto the streets each Friday, why Extinction Rebellion are occupying our streets – and why people are calling for a Green New Deal to confront environmental breakdown.
As Britain’s temperate climate increasingly becomes a relic of the past, we should join these movements in confronting new extremes with a collective response of honesty, action, and hope.