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My uncle’s house burned down in fires from the heatwave – so I made this vow

Is this something that could have been prevented? Could this happen again?

Alessandra Palange
Friday 29 July 2022 13:42 BST
I didn’t expect this to hit so close to home
I didn’t expect this to hit so close to home (Getty Images)

Last Tuesday, as temperatures peaked on the hottest day in the UK since records began, I saw a cloud rising in the distance during the walk to collect my children from their school in Newham.

Having grown up in a country that experiences fires in the hottest months of the year, I recognised what it was. This was the result of 40C heat, combined with two weeks without any rain. In this weather, any spark can have catastrophic effects on plants, animals, buildings and people. Seeing the smoke, I became worried for our community, but I didn’t expect this to hit so close to home.

I showed my husband pictures I’d taken. He replied that the fires were “quite far away, past Dagenham, close to where my uncle lives”. I got home and tried to cool myself and the children down. Fresh water on the forehead, ice cream for the kids, a couple of fans on. I sipped a cold coffee and scrolled through the news. I saw terrifying images of large areas of London on fire.

Those bulletins appeared alongside news about the extreme heat, accompanied by photos of people flocking to the coast. I couldn’t help but think how irresponsible it was for some media outlets to miss this opportunity to engage the public with one of the most pressing issues we face – the climate crisis: the root cause of the year-on-year record-breaking rising temperatures we’re witnessing.

Heatwaves might be temporarily enjoyable for some beachgoers, but they’re putting our public services under extreme pressure. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for the firefighters – who had their busiest day since the Second World War – tackling large fires under these conditions. Or the doctors, nurses and paramedics trying to cope with increased demand due to the health impact of these severe climate conditions. I received another message from my husband: “I just got the news I was dreading.”

He continued: “My uncle and his family are OK, mashallah, but they live in Wennington. Their house has burned down.” I was distraught beyond belief. Their home was one of 20 other houses destroyed by grass fires. Twenty families. Twenty tragedies.

I’ve been involved in climate activism for a decade. I do it because I don’t want people’s lives, health, livelihoods and homes to be affected by extreme weather on a regular basis. Scientists have been warning politicians for decades of the increased likelihood of unpredictable and extreme weather events because of increased global warming.

“One-off”, record-breaking heatwaves that might have occurred every few decades now seem to be commonplace. There are also more insidious, if less visible, impacts. These extreme events don’t affect people only when tragedies happen. The impact of more frequent extreme weather reverberates through societies. They lead to water and food scarcity. They trigger a domino effect, indirectly or directly exacerbating hunger, poverty, unemployment, social instability and mass displacement.

This is what’s happening in the global South, where people, often the poorest in world, experience the effects of climate change in real ways, and often to a worse degree. These communities are also often the ones with the smallest carbon footprints. That is, overall, they’ve done little to contribute to the root cause in the first place.

If we want to prevent these occurrences from becoming more frequent in the next decade, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, we need politicians to make a serious commitment to restore nature on a massive scale and transition rapidly from fossil-fuel dependency. I’ve been thinking about what I want our MPs, mayors and councillors to do next—and it’s to do more than offer thoughts and prayers.

I want them to back the Climate and Ecology Bill, a proposal for a new UK law that offers a joined-up approach to tackling the nature-climate crisis. This private member’s bill, which is currently working its way through parliament, would lock into law the UK’s commitment to stay below 1.5C of warming. It also calls for the UK to take responsibility for its entire carbon footprint – including imported emissions produced abroad – and to reverse the damage to nature by 2030.

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If it becomes law, ordinary people from different communities would also help the government draw up a climate and nature strategy to achieve these goals and decide, together, what the fairest way forward should be.

My husband reports that his family are just about managing. However, they are – as you might imagine – under tremendous stress. Where do they go from here? Is this something that could have been prevented? Could this happen again? I don’t know what to tell them. But what I do know is this: the more we minimise the average global temperature increase, the better our chances of avoiding future suffering.

The more rapidly we restore nature, the less frequent these events will be. We can often feel powerless to affect issues relating to the climate crisis. One way to take action today is to ask your MP to back the Climate and Ecology Bill. Why is this important? Because we all deserve to have a liveable future.

Alessandra Palange is the founder of Muslims Declare and a coordinator for campaign group Zero Hour. A Facebook group has been set up to support the Wennington fire victims

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