SO, are we scared yet? As we watch a large swathe of Canada and the American north-west suffer an unprecedented heatwave, are we ready to admit that, yes, climate change is a problem and not just for the Third World?
The people of Lytton in British Columbia were told to evacuate late on Wednesday as wildfire engulfed the village. The fire came after the temperature in Lytton hit 47.9C on Monday, the kind of temperature you’d normally find in the Sahara. And hotter than Las Vegas, some 1,300 miles south, has ever recorded. This in a normally temperate part of the world. On Tuesday, the temperature in Lytton rose to 49.6C. The province’s chief coroner has said that more than 300 deaths could be attributed to the extreme heat.
Earlier in June temperatures in five countries in the Middle East topped 50C. Scientists, meanwhile, have calculated that the European heatwaves that killed 2,500 people in 2019 are now five times more likely as a result of global warming.
Apocalypses can come in awful world-sweeping rushes; the Black Death, Spanish Flu, even Covid-19 (nearly four million people dead around the world and that figure is still rising). That’s the apocalyptic narrative that Hollywood has primed us for. But climate change is a creeping rash of small apocalypses. The world gets stormier, the world gets drier, the world gets warmer and then …
And then it becomes clear, as Canada is proving, that sometimes even air conditioning can be a life-or-death matter.
In this way such extreme weather events show up structural inequalities in our societies. (Covid has done the same, of course.) The problem is small apocalypses can easily be forgotten or ignored.
Read More: The Met and the death of accontability
Read More: Hillsborough and the wait for justice
It’s happening somewhere else, we can tell ourselves. It happened last year. It’s not our problem. When, of course, it is.
This week a study by Climate Ready Clyde found that nearly two million people in the greater Clyde area will face severe disruption from climate heating unless there is serious investment in future-proofing homes, businesses and transport links. If not the impact will be felt most by 140,000 of the poorest residents in the area. They are the ones most likely to be affected by heatwaves, flash floods and droughts.
That’s why COP26 in Glasgow is so important later this year. We can’t keep kicking the challenge of climate change down the road. Because the road is running out. That means governments taking bold initiatives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and planning climate adaptation strategies.
But let’s not pretend this is an easy argument to make. We have built up a lifestyle that is all about comfort and convenience. It’s difficult to give that up. Covid is a reminder of how desperate we are to get back to “normal,” even when that “normal” is part of the problem. We are not good at adapting.
And climate change is such an amorphous threat. We keep hearing about it, but it takes so many different forms in so many different places and in the end we’re not sure what it looks like. The danger is that because we can’t quite see it we can pretend to ourselves that it doesn’t really exist.
In that sense Canada should be a warning to us. We need to change how we act in the world. The question is will we?