It is, as you or some of your relatives may have felt compelled to declare this week, too hot. Temperatures today and Tuesday are expected to skyrocket towards 41°C in parts of the UK, with the Met Office issuing its first red weather warning for extreme heat.
To remark that it is too hot is to participate in a generation-spanning dance that, in the UK, involves a number of flourishes: the puffing of cheeks; the widening and rolling of eyes; the performative fanning of shirt collars. For the people anxiously aware of the implications of this heat, the phrase takes on a more literal tone. Quite simply, perpetual record-breaking heatwaves will ultimately be the death of us all.
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On the evening of the 12th of July, bookseller Lynn Gaspard received a text from her mother, concerned that their west London bookshop would flood yet again. “We were really worried,” she says over the phone, “but thinking, ‘What can we do?”
It’s a desperate question that has reverberated around the world, perhaps this month more than ever. The floods that have swept across the southeast of England in July caused significant property damage, leading to evacuations in London – on the 12th of July and, remarkably, again on Sunday – and the cancellation of Standon Calling festival.
But they are not yet comparable to the devastation in Germany and Belgium, where over 180 people were killed in flash floods, nor the horrific scenes of submerged homes in India or flooded subway train carriages in China. In the UK, many are praying that it won’t take an equally significant loss of life for the government and media to call these events what they are: climate disaster, the kind that refuses to loom menacingly on the horizon, but instead stares us directly in the face.
On the 15th of March, 2019, children around the world walked out of school and took to the streets to march in the first global climate strike. Across the world, classrooms from Tokyo to Kampala emptied to send out the message; in Stockholm’s central square, particular attention was being paid to 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, whose activism had seen her nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize just one day prior.
The strikes received sufficient media attention to call them a success, but Thunberg knows better than anyone that placid token gestures can be more dangerous than silence. The now-famous speech she gave at Davos hit home specifically because it took aim at those polite expressions of contrition – what we might call the “thoughts and prayers” narrative – in the way we talk about climate emergency. “I don’t want you to be hopeful,” she said. “I want you to panic.”