The hottest week in the UK since records began offers further proof that our weather is changing. Climate change and global heating are not predictions, but facts of life that we must deal with now. Ten of the UK’s warmest-ever years have been since 2002, while the temperature of 36.4C recorded at Heathrow airport last week made it the hottest August day since 2003.
Links between climate and weather must always be made with caution. But scientists already have evidence that 2020’s record temperatures are the consequence of human-caused climate change. According to researchers, the heatwave in the Siberian Arctic between January and June, which caused permafrost to melt and buildings to collapse, was made at least 600 times more likely by greenhouse gas emissions. While this summer has seen no repeat of 2018’s devastating wildfires in Greece, which killed more than 80 people, records have been broken in the Middle East as well as Europe and 2020 is likely to be the hottest year globally on record. On 29 July Baghdad recorded a temperature high of 51.7C, leading to protests about electricity and goods shortages.
Yet despite warnings stretching back decades, the UK remains ill-equipped and underprepared for such changes. Tourist destinations are struggling to cope with the influx of new visitors due to warm weather as well as Covid-19 travel restrictions. And while some people have mainly enjoyed the sun and high temperatures, they carry risks for older people and those with underlying health conditions. Experts warn that the tendency by UK broadcasters to present long dry spells as good news risks lulling the public into a false sense of security.
The deaths of three men, caused by Wednesday’s derailment of a train near Stonehaven in Scotland, were a tragic corrective to this national tendency to look on the bright side when it comes to weather. While the causes of the disaster remain to be determined by investigators, Network Rail and Scotland’s transport secretary, Michael Matheson, have both pointed to torrential rain and landslips as probable factors. Inspections of dozens of sites with similar trackside slopes have already been ordered. Meanwhile, farmers are warning that the weather has shrunk crops of grain and potatoes. Last weekend saw countryside in Surrey damaged by a wildfire, and Hammersmith Bridge in London is shut after cracks worsened in the heatwave.
In March the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced that funding for England’s flood defences would increase to GBP5.2bn in 2021, while the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, pledged to decarbonise transport. The government is said to be planning a new, state-backed green bank. But there is still no sign of the comprehensive action plan that is needed to boost the UK’s resilience to the threat of climate chaos. Indeed, environmental commitments were conspicuous by their absence from last week’s planning proposals. And while Boris Johnson bandies about buzz phrases such as “infrastructure revolution“, ministers’ awareness of the scale of the climate challenge appears sketchy rather than solid. Last month a commission on the decarbonisation of heating systems convened by the CBI offered the latest of repeated warnings that the UK is on course to miss key targets.
Of course, the pandemic and recession make it harder to think beyond the present and immediate future, especially for people whose livelihoods are threatened. But already the UK is lagging behind the green recovery plans of countries including Germany, with its GBP9bn investment in hydrogen. With flash floods expected over the weekend, the need for climate leadership has never been clearer, to shield us from the storms ahead.