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The great British bake off and a European hotpot

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Picture: PA Images via Reuters – July 19, 2022 saw the London Fire Brigade at its busiest since the second World War as new records for high temperatures were broken with the mercury peaking at 40.3°C.

By Dominic Naidoo

July 19, 2022 will be etched into the collective British memory. Three years after the last record-breaking temperatures swept through the English countryside, new records for high temperatures were broken on Tuesday as the UK experienced its hottest day ever, with the mercury peaking at 40.3°C at the village of Coningsby in Lincolnshire, eastern England.

The day saw the London Fire Brigade at its busiest since the second World War. But climate change threatens to make such extreme heat a normal occurrence in the UK later this century, with 40°C days expected to occur every few years by 2100.

Chloe Brimicombe, a PhD candidate who studies the links between climate change and human health at the University of Reading has said that “because heat waves aren’t something we can see or touch – and are often greeted with joy – it’s difficult for people to understand the risk they pose”.

“Most deaths during heat waves occur out of sight and among those who are most vulnerable, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions,” she says.

Climate change is torching the UK’s reputation for having a cool and wet climate, but government policy has not caught up, Brimicombe says “overheating occurs in 20 percent of UK homes during a normal summer and it potentially can lead to fatal heat stroke”.

“This is the cause of most preventable heatwave deaths and it demands an adaptation plan from the government that includes retrofitting homes and building new housing that doesn’t overheat.”

According to Christopher J White, head of the Centre for Water, Environment, Sustainability and Public Health at the University of Strathclyde that hosted the 2021 Climate Change Conference of Youth, said that “as our climate continues to warm, its baseline is shifting”.

“How these hazards and their causes interact is therefore also changing fast, challenging the very definition of extreme weather events. Compound events, a term only adopted by the IPCC in 2012, describe the outcomes of a combination of causes that ultimately surpass the capacity of an underlying system to cope.

“These include events where a hazard like a wildfire was made worse by something that had preconditioned the environment, like drought,” he said.

The beginning of this week saw over 4,000 Uzbekistan residents admitted to hospital because of an abnormal heatwave sweeping through the eastern European country, the Uzbek ministry of health said in a statement. During the day, the air in Tashkent warms up to 40-43°C, in the south of the country – up to 45°C.

“From July 17 to date, July 20, the republic’s ambulance service received 130,115 calls” the head of emergency service said.

More than 23,400 people contacted the ambulance service with complaints of high blood pressure, shortness of breath, asthma attacks and other chronic diseases, with 4,215 of them hospitalised.

From this perspective, Europe’s recent heatwave can be understood as part of a cascade of extreme events that are already combining to make daily life unbearable in some parts of Earth. “Wariness of these compound events should influence the way we live our lives in a warmer world,” White said.

The world is on fire as climate change takes root with both the United States and Europe in the grip of a deadly heatwave. Soaring temperatures have baked southern European countries with Portugal, Spain, France and Greece battling to fend off raging wildfires burning through ancient olive orchards and vineyards.

Thousands of people were forced to abandon their homes and flee. Whole villages and ancient woodlands have been reduced to nothing but ash, blowing in the breeze like dust in a forgotten house.

A thousand human lives and countless animal souls were lost to the fires. The great city of London is melting under severely high temperatures that sparked several fires, the likes of which were last seen almost 400 years ago when the Great Fire of London razed the fledgling wooden capital to the ground.

Unbelievably, in the midst of this crisis, the Conservative Party were too busy with a tedious leadership battle, seemingly oblivious to the fires sweeping through the capitalist capital.

Sadiq Khan, mayor of London was left shocked, saying it “beggars belief” that the Conservative Party was busying itself with a leadership vote while the city was burning.

Yes, South Africa has experienced more than its fair share of hardships over the last four decades. Apartheid, the transition from white rule into what may be a failing democracy, massive unemployment, skyrocketing crime rates and all this before the pandemic swept through the world, but even some Saffers are feeling pity for what our former colonialists are going through.

Many religious Europeans would not be faulted for believing that biblical prophecies were coming to pass after being overwhelmed by a war on their eastern doorstep, resulting in food and fuel shortages, widespread strikes by workers demanding a better life, travellers left stranded at airports due to fuel or staff shortages, or both.

We were warned though. We were warned decades ago that this would come. Scientists published countless papers of the consequences of climate change but we shrugged it off as something for someone else to worry about.

Either we were too arrogant with our little insignificant battles for power and money or we were just too busy with the rat race to notice how few bees were buzzing around the garden.

Many of us saw these climate disasters in the news happening in a far off, exotic land and thought it surely won’t happen to us.

Even after all this, I still read letters and opinion pieces penned by sceptics and climate change denialists who, shockingly, do not possess any qualification pertaining to climate science, meteorology or any sort of environmental science. Less shockingly, these people are old.

They argue it is nothing but a big conspiracy, planned in deep mountain lairs by big international corporations. They say the soaring temperatures, floods, droughts, famine and fires have nothing to do with climate change and that the Earth has been through these cycles before.

Yes, no one is arguing that the Earth has these natural cycles of heating and cooling. We know, from studying polar ice sheets, permafrost and glacial formations that there were many periods of global warming and global ice ages.

History.com conveniently outlines that an ice age is a period of colder global temperatures and recurring glacial expansion capable of lasting hundreds of millions of years. Thanks to the efforts of geologist Louis Agassiz and mathematician Milutin Milankovitch, scientists have determined that variations in the Earth’s orbit and shifting plate tectonics spur the waxing and waning of these periods.

There have been at least five significant ice ages in Earth’s history, with approximately a dozen epochs of glacial expansion occurring in the past 1 million years. Humans developed significantly during the most recent glaciation period, emerging as the dominant land animal afterwards as megafauna such as the woolly mammoth went extinct.

History also points out that these periods of global warming and cooling occur over 40,000 to 100,000 year periods, with these changes happening gradually and not over mere decades as we have been experiencing presently.

I was invited to listen to a talk given by researcher, Radhika Khosla, on climate change data journalism. Khosla gave an analogy that will stick with me for some time. She says that the Earth is a bathtub and greenhouse emissions is water filling the bathtub. Right now, the tub isn’t full, we have some time before it overflows. Unless we put in a drain somewhere soon, the tub will overflow and flood the house.

We can’t live in a flooded house.

Dominic Naidoo is an environmental journalist.

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