Mass deaths, water rationing, wildfires: Heatwave exposes scale of leadership vacuum on climate

Governments failing to take on ‘existential issue’ as frustration and fear grow, say experts

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Wednesday 20 July 2022 08:29 BST
Firefighters battle spread of wildfire in Catalonia

Across Western Europe the newspaper front pages are all varying shades of red and yellow – the colours of the wildfire flames and weather-maps brought by a brutal, record-setting heatwave which is estimated to kill thousands of people.

In Spain, enduring its second heatwave in a month, wildfires have swept across the central regions of Castile and Léon, as well as the northern region of Galicia, with more than 70,000 hectares destroyed. In some areas soil temperatures have hit almost 60C.

In France, over 32,000 people have been evacuated as over 27,000 hectares burnt in the southwest Gironde area, while other wildfires have devastated parts of the country’s Atlantic coast with several villages evacuated. Historic heat records have been recorded in the cities of Nantes and Brest.

Italy has seen water rationing amid the worst drought in 70 years, with four northern regions declaring a state of emergency, while wildfire levels for 2022 have already tripled Italy’s average.

Portugal’s health ministry said over the weekend that 659 mainly elderly people had died in the previous seven days, while across Europe the number of deaths related to the heatwave has already surged to over 1,100.

Just two days of heatwave in the UK have already broken records in England and Wales, with temperatures over 40C recorded for the first time in history on Tuesday afternoon.

For decades, climate scientists have warned that rising greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel usage would mean more frequent and more ferocious heatwaves.

Yet emissions are still rising, and not one country has a coherent plan in place to rapidly wind down the pollution and divert us from the suicidal path we are being dragged down.

"Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose by 6 per cent in 2021 to 36.3 billion tonnes, their highest ever level, as the world economy rebounded strongly from the Covid-19 crisis and relied heavily on coal to power that growth," said the International Energy Agency earlier this year.

This means we are still on the march to hotter temperatures.

What are governments doing about it? By any scientific measure, not enough. Transformative climate leadership is yet to be seen.

The British government’s efforts to cast itself as a global leader on tackling the worsening crisis rings particularly hollow as the governing Conservative party has descended into in-fighting over the leadership contest – with all the key contenders in the race placing the climate as the least of their concerns in polling this week. Some have said they would scrap net-zero targets aimed at curbing emissions.

Their lack of concern comes after the UK government’s own advisors, the Climate Change Committee, has already warned that existing plans for tackling the crisis will not deliver on legal targets to cut emissions in the coming decades.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has been accused of presiding over a "zombie government" since his resignation and today made light of the extent of the concern at the historic temperatures, saying it was essential to keep schools and hospitals open and the "economy moving".

Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, chair of the Grantham Institute on climate change at Imperial College London, and a professor of meteorology at the University of Reading, told The Independent that "this is an existential issue for our species".

He said: "Climate models appear to have underestimated the changes in extreme weather that we are now seeing.

"If European governments are still asleep on climate change, I am not sure what it will take to wake them up. Maybe this will do it."

Newspaper front pages from the UK and Europe amid the heatwave

But he warned that "progress is patchy and not convincing".

"Climate change is an issue that they put on the back burner when any other pressing problem turns up."

In the UK, Labour’s Geraint Davies, who sits on Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is among the MPs urging the government to take stronger action, warning that the current heatwave and its heavy impacts on the NHS and transport systems is a "foretaste of what failure to act on global warming really feels like".

He told The Independent: "This record heatwave is a wake up call for government to step up to tackle the climate crisis, yet there is no long-term leadership, just a squabble about tax cuts now or next year, with no plan to tackle rising temperatures and extreme weather conditions.

"The government fails to understand the powerlessness and distress being felt by the public on this terrifying spiral into environmental breakdown. They must provide a green route-map to a sustainable future or else step aside for a government committed to do so."

While in opposition to Donald Trump, Joe Biden was elected on a platform of transformational jobs in the green energy sector, highlighting enormous support for such policies. But despite this mandate, change in the US has remained at a glacial pace, while key environmental protections have been undone by the Republican-dominated Supreme Court.

In Spain, a 2021 poll suggested 83 per cent of Spaniards were more concerned about the climate than their government, in France Emmanuel Macron is accused of presiding over inaction on climate while talking up his credentials. In Italy, Italians are feeling the impact of climate change in their daily lives far more than other Europeans – 91 per cent vs 77 per cent according to the European Investment Bank – and are highly sceptical of their government’s ability to fight climate change.

This week, Dr Simon Evans, deputy editor of Carbon Brief, has been tracking newspaper frontpages across the world, revealing a nightmarish unanimity in the horror of what is occurring and the need for something major to be done.

“It’s been grim reading to keep track of the terrifying images on newspaper front pages over the past few days, in publications from Saudi Arabia to Serbia, Slovenia and Spain," he told The Independent.

"Every time we see such widespread climate extremes, people ask if this will be the moment for governments to act – and yet the world remains wildly off track against its climate goals.”

The overall picture should concern democratic governments. Exasperation is building fast. Across the board our elected representatives are failing to take action to address people’s concerns.

The current swell of frustration among disenfranchised people is therefore an enormous opportunity for imaginative governance.

Alice Bell, author of Our Biggest Experiment and head of climate policy at Wellcome, told The Independent that politicians need to grab the "incredible opportunity" present at such a crossroads.

She said: "As citizens in the 2020s, it’s easy to feel like we’ve been left an almighty mess by people who’ve come before us. I imagine many politicians feel the same. But we shouldn’t let this lead us to despair.

"The best time to take action on climate change was decades ago, but the next best time is today so we should just get going. We’ve got a load of shovel-ready solutions that will reduce carbon emissions but also create growth and help our health through things like cutting air pollution. We have incredible science that can track and predict problems, we have technologies to tackle them and political systems to put change into place. We need to seize these opportunities and get to work.

"Today’s leaders have an incredible opportunity to make a difference to billions of lives with the right decisions."

Prof Hoskins agrees. "Acting on climate change is the way to give us the best chance of a vibrant economy. If climate change goes unchecked our economy and those around the world will suffer enormously.

"On the positive side, we are in the early stages of an industrial revolution. The new businesses and jobs will be in the green technologies and services. We led the first industrial revolution, and we need to be in the vanguard of this one if our economy is to flourish in future."

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