Heatwave? No, it’s a national emergency, disrupting lives and threatening our health


Show caption London prepares for temperatures of up to 40C. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Opinion Heatwave? No, it’s a national emergency, disrupting lives and threatening our health Will Hutton The idea of climate change as a distant problem won’t survive the next stifling week Sat 16 Jul 2022 19.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Tomorrow, as we seek shelter from a burning sun, climate change will feel all too real. Britain has suffered ever more vicious storms and floods over the past few years but the next couple of days will drive home the menacing discontinuity with our idea of normal, a step change in our collective awareness. The expected heat – temperatures that may exceed 40C warns the Met Office – are not only a record, but life-threatening.

It will start to change the politics of climate change. Until now, the green case has been propelled by the young, the progressive and the environmentally passionate, with the majority accepting the argument but without great heart. It’s OK to be green as long as the costs and changes in our lifestyles are far in the future, and any wind farms aren’t built near us – an opening the climate-sceptic right is exploiting to try to put a halt to what it considers backdoor socialism.

In Australia, the searing experience of drought, extreme heat, unstoppable bush fires and deaths has transformed a climate-sceptic nation into mainstream greens, putting its hitherto ascendant right on the defensive. Tomorrow is when Britain will begin to follow suit.

For this will not be a traditional heatwave, a moment to sunbathe joyfully in the park. Instead, keep out of the desiccating sun. The summer of 2020 saw 2,500 excess deaths from heat; it will be more this summer. Suffocatingly hot nights will offer little relief. Nor does anyone know how our infrastructure, which was not built with resilience or weather extremes in mind, will hold up. Train, bus and tube cancellations are likely. Will the electricity and water networks hold up under extreme demand? Even if they do, will we get through July and August without problems as a heat dome settles over Europe?

Only some 70 parliamentarians turned up to last week’s presentation on climate change led by Sir Patrick Vallance and other scientific officials. None of the Tory leadership candidates was among them. The accepted Tory wisdom, driven by its right, is that, at best, climate change commitments should be deferred until the cost of living crisis is over – at worst, they should be scaled back indefinitely or wholly reframed. Finally, at Friday’s Channel 4 debate, three candidates publicly committed to the legally enshrined target of net zero by 2050: Rishi Sunak, Tom Tugendhat and Penny Mordaunt. The right’s frontrunner, Liz Truss, offered a commitment, but carefully not to a date; and Kemi Badenoch, the insurgent candidate from the right, wanted the whole issue reframed.

If Badenoch and Truss were to watch Vallance’s presentation, they would surely change their view. Global temperatures are rising. So is the cumulative amount of carbon in the atmosphere. The polar ice caps are melting at bewildering and accelerating speed. Sea levels are increasing. So are extreme weather events. All are unambiguously the result of human influence, says the Met Office. A global commitment to net zero by 2050 could limit the temperature rise to 1.5C.

In Britain, progress has been made, largely driven by decarbonising energy supply. There are hopeful auguries – one in four new cars bought in December 2021 was battery driven and there are now 30,000 charge points – but a huge amount remains to be done. Grip it and there are jobs aplenty – retrofitting our appallingly poorly insulated 30 million homes and transforming the energy system. But every year that action is deferred is another year of carbon pumped into the atmosphere to add to the cumulative stock, making the frequency of weeks like this more likely. As the presentation spells out, not to act is to invite multiple economic and social risks over the next 50 years. Worse, this wonderful world we have inherited, in all its majesty and beauty, will be despoiled.

For the political right, collective action is anathema: it smacks of enlarging the state and raising taxes

But acting will cost money. Technical innovation alone will not save the day, as Vallance underlined. The independent Climate Change Committee has estimated the annual cost at £50bn; the Treasury thinks it could be £70bn. And for the political right, this is the non-negotiable objection. Collective action is anathema: it smacks of enlarging the state, and of course implies an accompanying case for taxation, the ultimate in coercive intrusion into personal choice. The science is thus to be doubted: a Trojan horse to undermine these higher inalienable truths.

There is little “we” in the thinking of politicians such as Suella Braverman and Badenoch, and only fractionally more in Truss, the born-again tribune of the right. They are about the vital importance of enlarging the sovereignty and autonomy of the “I”. So drill for oil and gas, and burn it, because it’s easy and what we have always done – even if renewable energy is much cheaper. Personal liberty is the overriding obligation. Taxes must be capped and driven down. At the limit, the needs of the planet take second place.

Here the right is massively out of step with science, evolving public opinion and the business opportunities – a triple whammy of misalignment that will prove deadly. The science is incontestable. So is our daily experience. What is less discussed is how acting presents a massive opportunity. Already the best in business and finance are committed to net zero by 2050. In the City, argument rages whether it’s best to disinvest completely from fossil fuel companies or to support them as they transition to a new business model; what is accepted in a world far from rightwing thinktanks, columnists and chat rooms is that the change must be made.

A partial reindustrialisation is possible around electrification, renewable energy, hydrogen, new forms of agriculture, battery-driven cars and upgrading the property stock. A reset capitalism organised around achieving great purposes could simultaneously drive to net zero and level up – a vision both necessary and inspiring, and backed by public opinion. And it would also mean lower bills.

As you swelter over the next few days and grow alarmed, take comfort. The experience is provoking the millions of private conversations that ultimately drive a collective response. On climate change scepticism, the right is unambiguously wrong – it might not even prove the route to the Tory leadership. It is certainly not the route to winning general elections.

• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist

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