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12 August

Europe’s worst drought on record needs to trigger a flood of climate action

We should consider this a warning.

By India Bourke

Between inflation and the soaring cost of living, there is already plenty to be anxious about. The cloudless blue sky, meanwhile, seems almost to forbid gloom. Can’t we just call the sunny weather a win and leave it at that?

In the face of Europe and the UK’s unfolding drought, climate-sceptic voices offer up various seductive brainworms. They query the science (which is extremely clear), blame water shortages on mismanagement (only part of the story), and belittle the threat. Satellite views of the UK may look as if someone has held a blowtorch to the eastern coast – but just look at Ireland, Wales and most of Scotland, the climate sceptics will say: they’re still reassuringly green.

Yet this summer’s heat is undeniably a crisis. In Europe, two thirds of land is now covered by drought warnings in what is thought to be the worst such event in 500 years. Germany’s mighty Rhine river is, in the words of the German tabloid Bild, a “sad trickle”; Bordeaux is on fire and more than 100 French municipalities are relying on drinking water being delivered by truck. The years 2019, 2018 and 2015 all saw severe continental drought; before that it was 2003: signifying a trend that is escalating at an alarming speed.

In the UK, drought has been officially declared today (12 August) in parts of south-western, southern and central England after they have experienced almost 150 days with little or no rain since January. Hose-pipe bans will likely be expanded across the country and, in London, grass fires have increased 700 per cent.

For the many people that will enjoy the sunshine this weekend, the growing sense of unease will be as pervasive as the heat. Burned-out grass makes me think of wild birds unable to quench their thirst, of starving badgers seeking worms that have burrowed ever deeper into the parched soil, and of the fish that will die as lakes dry up. Worse is also still to come, warns the UK’s Wildlife Trusts, as wild food sources run out because vegetation has matured too soon.

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Economically, the lack of rain could spell a resounding blow. Hydropower has reportedly dropped 20 per cent in western Europe compared with average output, which will likely further push up the already fearsome price of energy. With drought conditions forecast to last until October, farmers are also raising alarms about the viability of their harvests: half the potato crop is reportedly expected to fail and milk production is down.

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But the emotional response doesn’t have to bow to the binary of either denial or dread. Instead, there is a third option: galvanise. Let the heat seep into your sinews and stiffen resolve. On an individual level, that might mean investing in water butts and water-efficient appliances, or vowing to reduce emissions by cutting out more meat. On a broader scale it means demanding better from the governments and corporations that shape our world. From reducing emissions to restoring wetlands and reorganising the way water companies are overseen, the answers already exist.

Thankfully, the US has provided one positive moment in this week’s growing heat-haze. Not everyone is happy with President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, but there is a sense of relief that serious US climate legislation is (nearly) in place.

When the inevitable flash floods hit, those who wish to play down the climate crisis will likely further scoff. Instead, a flood of climate action must sweep away the denial and delay for good.

[See also: Sewage, spills and shortages: how water companies have failed]

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