The question of whether or not climate change is real is rapidly becoming less urgent than what can be done to alleviate the human suffering it is causing. In Rajasthan, north-west India this week, the mercury hit 51 degrees celsius (123°F). That’s the hottest temperature on record in the country. Hospitals are swamped with patients suffering heatstroke and dehydration. The year’s harvest is shrivelling in the ground. People are cooking to death on public transport. Yesterday, a camel left alone in the sun went mad and chewed its owner’s head off. That’s how hot it is in Rajasthan right now.
In rural areas, where there is no electricity, no fresh water, nothing to cool you but the breeze, citizens are demanding that the government take responsibility and offer relief, provide shelter, water and basic cooling facilities. That’s the sort of heroism that should be unnecessary in the middle of a heatwave: it takes enough energy to lobby local bureaucracy at the best of times, let alone when it’s hot enough that livestock have become homicidal.
I’ve been obsessed with this story for days, because it’s my personal nightmare. I loathe the heat. The cold, at least, can usually be escaped; heat leaves me drained and frightened. I can’t sleep under duvets. I become a limp dishrag in summer, and temperatures of over thirty degrees celsius regularly see me with my head in an open refrigerator, cursing my grandparents’ decision to become citizens of a country that does not consider air conditioning a necessary artefact of civilisation. But air conditioning is also upsetting: when the merciful roar of the high-energy unit kicks in, you can practically hear the sizzling fossil fuels soothing you with the cool breeze of complicity. In the heat, all I can do is overthink. I would not cope in Rajasthan. I can barely cope with Brighton in July.
The British national sport of complaining about the weather is becoming increasingly insensitive. After three centuries of merrily conquering other nations and building bonfires out of their resources to light our way to a place of power in a burning world, we are still inhabiting one of the only landmasses where the weather isn’t actively trying to kill us all the time. Pleasant as it is to carp and moan every time the temperature moves outside the ten-degree range I happen to find comfortable, the temperate, drizzle-through-the-sunshine British climate is pretty much as good as it gets, on a global scale. In fact, on that same global scale, Britain has some claim for having had the most benefit out of fossil fuels for the least climate cost. If we’re not going to cough up reparations, the least we can do is stop whining.
I mention all this for two reasons. Firstly, because the manifestations and implications of climate change are frightening wherever you happen to live, and I find sprinkle of weak humour makes the whole thing bearable, makes me less likely to panic and tap out of the entire discussion as something that’s not relevant to me right now because for the meantime, at least, I’m comfy indoors and it’s raining outside.
Secondly, because when the lives and livelihoods of so many are at stake – when the topic for discussion is not tens or thousands but millions of people actually cooking in the unnatural heat – you run into a phenomenon that rationalists call “scope insensitivity”. Let’s say that my nightmare is overwhelming, inescapable heat. I can imagine, viscerally, physically, how it might feel to be trapped in a 51 degree outdoor oven. I can be scared and outraged that there are no emergency shelters being built, no cool water on offer, that so little is being done to alleviate that suffering, when I picture one, or two, or ten strangers sweltering through it.
But the knowledge that the population of Rajasthan is 73.5 million does not make me 73.5 million times as frightened outraged. My heart cannot hold that much heat-terror. That’s not how the human heart is designed. And that’s what scope insensitivity is: on a species level, it is psychologically extremely difficult to summon the appropriate level of empathy and translate that empathy into action.
That doesn’t mean it’s not useful – vital – to try. Our understanding of urgency has got to scale up. Any useful response to the growing climate crisis will require precisely the sort of collective action on a global, state and local level that neoliberal governments around the world have turned their faces from, either actively destroying the necessary infrastructure to cope with human suffering or refusing to build it in the first place. In a burning world, the time has surely come for lifesaving infrastructure in which everyone is invested.
As climate change becomes a reality for billions of people all over the world, what are the demands going to be? In Rajasthan, the immediate need is obvious: for tents, cold water, more reliable electricity, contingency plans to deal with coming food shortages, and better provision of amenities for rural communities. The longer-term need is much like everyone else’s: for the governments of the world to earmark enough resources to tackle the human effects of the inhuman weather we’re all going to be suffering through in the decades to come.
The question is no longer whether man-made climate change is actually a thing that’s happening. That’s not because the issue has been resolved in the minds of evangelical naysayers and their fuel tycoon besties. It’s because if you’re standing in front of a burning house, the issue of who lit the match can be tabled for the meantime, while we decide how to get the kids out.