In the last few days, scorching temperatures have hit Europe and surrounding countries, including the UK, now no longer part of the European Union. The hottest day ever in the UK was recorded on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, with the temperature exceeding 40C. While wildfires raged across the continent, homes burned and fires spread through UK suburbia.
Although this may come as a mild surprise to people following the news, it’s hardly so.
When I visited Europe for three weeks in June 2016 and stayed in the UK for a few months starting September 2016, the only rise in temperature was attributable to Brexit — with tempers running high among both the Leave and the Remain camps.
There was no heatwave, no burning fires, no scorched earth.
During my Europe tour across a dozen-plus countries, I found that the hotels I stayed in had no air-conditioning (cooling), only heating. The same held true for my UK university, my student hostel accommodation, the public transport and business establishments, including restaurants, diners, bistros and so on. Not just air-conditioning, even fans were non-existent in both western Europe and the UK. When I was not studying in the cozy, heated buildings of my uni, I would travel from London to Edinburgh and farther north. Everywhere I went, there was no provision towards cooling places of residence and work, only heating options.
It is no wonder that both Europe and the UK were found seriously ill-equipped to handle the high temperatures currently being seen there, which have at times soared above 40C. In India, we are used to high temperatures, which touch 50C in certain places and even by mid-March this year, some regions in the hinterland had made their peace with the early onset of summer and plus-40C temperatures.
Infrastructure in the UK and Europe is largely meant to keep cold out; it will now have to adapt to keeping heat out, even as rail tracks, highways, buildings built to withstand heat of only upto 38C attempt to cope with plus-40C temperatures.
How did things come to such a pass? Why did the authorities not take adequate preventive measures? Why was the general public largely caught unawares?
The answer is simple: climate change denial.
Even though the heatwave that hit Europe and the UK in 2022 has broken all records, the fact is the Earth has been warming up slowly and steadily over the past several decades. It only needed an acknowledgement and acceptance of this to avert the crisis currently unfolding in front of our eyes. Global warming is real and it is here.
Calling attempts to address this alarmist, motivated and warped does no one any favours. It only obscures the truth and makes introducing remedial measures that much tougher.
Climate change denial works at many levels but not many would be aware that there’s dedicated lobbying going on to deny the science of climate change. Most of this is carried out by the fossil fuel industry: BP has the highest annual expenditure on climate lobbying at $53 million, followed by Shell with $49 million and ExxonMobil with $41 million. Chevron and Total each spend around $29 million every year on lobbying.
Apart from this highly-effective tactic, there are other kinds of denial — from economic and humanitarian to political denial. We are variously led into thinking that climate change is just part of the natural cycle, that climate models are unreliable and too sensitive to carbon dioxide. Climate change deniers also peddle the lie that it is too expensive to fix. Others even suggest that CO₂ is such a small part of the atmosphere it cannot have a large heating effect.
Other reasons trotted about by deniers include assertions that more people die of the cold than heat, so warmer winters will be a good thing. This is deeply misleading since vulnerable people die of the cold because of not being able to afford heating for their homes, which are often poorly-equipped to handle cold. Climate does not kill them. Lack of access to heating does.
Politically, deniers argue we cannot take action or our actions will amount to nothing since other countries are not doing anything substantial to combat climate change. The truth is, developed countries have greater liability towards causing global warming. The US, with its large suburban homes, long commutes to work, an economy that revolves around excessive consumption and other, similar factors, produces 25% of human-generated CO2 in the atmosphere. Another 22% is produced by the European Union.
Africa, on the other hand, produces just under 5%.
Climate finance is money paid by wealthy countries (responsible for most of the historic emissions) to developing countries to help them pay for emissions reduction measures and adaptation. At the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, wealthy nations had promised US$100 billion a year in climate finance to developing nations by 2020. But that goal has not been met even in 2022.
Also, it costs only 1 percent of the global GDP to reduce global CO2 emissions by 6 to 8.5% by 2030. You read that right.
Compared to 2019, the lockdowns necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, apart from creating a global health and economic crisis, also reduced global CO2 emissions in 2020 by 6-7%. To bounce back economically, many governments worldwide have invested in recovery plans to stimulate the economy and support employment.
In a study published in Frontiers in Climate, researchers from The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency demonstrated that if recovery packages would focus on accelerating the transition toward low-carbon energy production and improving energy efficiency in industry, this could be a significant boost toward reaching climate targets.
In the same vein, the Stern Review (published: 2006), a 700-page behemoth of a report commissioned by the British government and led by economist Nicholas Stern, was the first to quantify the costs needed to address climate change and its impact on the global economy versus the outcome in case of a status quo. The report concluded that cutting carbon emissions so that carbon dioxide peaked in the range of 450-550 parts per million would cost 1 percent of the global GDP annually, but ignoring climate change could cause economic damage on the order of up to 20 percent of the GDP. Translated into real world numbers, the Stern Review put a price of about $85 per ton of carbon pollution emitted today, well above the current rate used by the U.S. of $40 per ton.
Additionally, the International Monetary Fund estimates that efficient fossil fuel pricing would lower global carbon emissions by 28 percent, fossil fuel air pollution deaths by 46 percent, and increase government revenue by 3.8 percent of the country’s GDP.
There is really no cogent and convincing argument to put off the fight against climate change. All the reasons being offered today are essentially hollow; similar logic was historically applied to delay the ban on smoking, allow same sex marriages, decriminalise homosexuality, grant women the right to vote, end segregation and colonial rule and slavery.
The question that needs asking is why are we delaying the action needed to combat climate change by heeding the justifications being offered by those who have the most to gain by letting the status quo prevail or even make things worse?