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Let’s not forget about the heatwave now it’s over

Many acted like COVID was over once restrictions ended. Let’s not do the same with the latest devastating heatwave

Maysa Pritilata
17 August 2022, 10.53am

Emergency services at the scene of a blaze in the village of Wennington, East London, in July

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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to see rain as I was this week.

And while I’m definitely someone who usually complains about miserable, cloudy weather (just a crumb of vitamin D, I beg you!), this kind of heat is simply not normal in this country and we should take it – and its effects – very seriously.

Let’s not just forget about it and go back to things as they were, like we did with COVID.

Once infection and death rates started to reduce, we acted as if the pandemic had gone away. Public places quickly reopened, masks came off and people were made to go back to their offices.

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But we haven’t fully addressed the lack of measures to prevent and control viral outbreaks, nor have we put protections in place for the most vulnerable people.

We even have to pay for tests now, which means poorer people are less able to protect the people around them.

If we take this same attitude with the heatwave we have all experienced (and many of us suffered through), then… well, we’re doomed.

And so we don’t forget, here’s (some of) what happened. The UK hit 40°C for the first time ever, to devastating effect: imprisoned people suffered inside their cells in sweltering conditions; firefighters were exposed to increased risk of cancer and heatstroke; there were widespread crop failures due to drought; and there were around 1,000 “excess deaths”.

We cannot afford to let this happen again. If we want to learn from this, there are measures we can and should take.

The NHS should not only be protected against cuts and privatisation, but invested in as the only way to prevent such an enormous loss of life.

We should question incarceration as an appropriate treatment of human beings. We should also reinvest in fire departments, which experienced £400m worth of cuts from 2016 to 2021. Since insulation would have helped keep our homes cool during the heatwave, we should strive to have proper insulation in every house in the country.

And when we have such a big opportunity to ask questions of our country’s leaders as we’ve had with the Tory leadership contest, broadcasters should devote a lot more than two minutes, or 3% of interview time, to the issue of climate change.

The first heatwave in July was made at least ten times more likely because of it.

We need to be more prepared for this kind of extreme weather and not let energy companies off the hook.

How can they be allowed to cripple already struggling families during a cost of living crisis and extreme weather while also making huge profits? Centrica, the owner of British Gas, reported operating profits of £1.3bn during the first half of 2022.

Some mock the tactics of environmental activist groups like Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, but the real area of critique should be about whether these groups are tackling climate change, as a systemically driven issue, on a systemic level.

After all, why wouldn’t fossil fuel companies raise their prices if they can, in a world where profit is the end goal?

From an oil company exec’s point of view, they’re doing exactly as they should. So it shouldn’t be so much about trying to persuade them to stop doing this – or worse yet, trying to persuade the government to persuade them – but more about changing things so that the needs of the planet and its population come before the need for profit.

And they certainly profit.

Oil giants ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron are principally responsible for global emissions. Recognising that big energy companies play such a large role, it might be tempting to call on them to adopt renewable energy sources. But if oil, coal and gas are cheaper to obtain, then these pollutant fossil fuels are more profitable, so why would they give up their advantage to a competitor?

And recognising that big energy companies have a monopoly or near-monopoly over energy production, it might be tempting to call for them to be forcibly broken up into smaller enterprises so we can foster a freer market again. This is a fantasy. All it would do is reset the cycle and allow another monopoly to emerge. It doesn’t actually give us more control over global energy production, nor does it necessarily mean greater accountability.

We shouldn’t leave it to climate-vulnerable countries like Vanuatu to make huge leaps in sustainability and environmental protection measures. Every country should be practising the same level of commitment, especially those which are less vulnerable and have been bigger contributors to climate change already.

If you’re looking for a place to start, the US military alone pollutes more than 100 countries combined. So why did the Democrats’ new climate package incentivise fossil fuel production?

We can’t just think of the past heatwave as a random bad moment or hope that it won’t happen again. We need to prepare for the future, protect the planet and hold climate abusers accountable.

Collective memory, critical thinking and preventative measures, rather than reactive measures, are crucial to the survival of vulnerable people, our health and the livability of the Earth in the future.

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