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The highest temperatures recorded across the home nations have almost all occurred in the past 25 years. In England, the current holder of this dubious accolade is the Cambridge Botanic Gardens, with a temperature of 38.7C recorded on July 25, 2019. If our meteorologists are right, we’re likely to see even higher temperatures over the next two days.
Doubtless some will claim that rather than offering compelling evidence of climate change, these latest “peaks” represent no more than cherry-picking, with the historical records pointing to plentiful similarly hot days in the distant past.
I’m old enough to remember the summer of 1976, still offering the hottest days in early July since records began in 1866. I also recall Denis Howell, the “drought” minister at the time, happily telling assembled reporters — some of whom feigned outrage in the hope of shocking their home counties readers — that he was about to jump into the bath with his wife in a bid to save water.
There are even earlier examples of mercury-busting moments. But none of these can really be treated as meaningful challenges to the idea that we are genuinely experiencing climate change.
The Met Office notes that, already, average temperatures have risen in the UK by about 1C since the Fifties. It warns that, in 50 years from now, “the chances of exceeding 40C are similar to the chances of exceeding 32C 30 years ago” (proof, if any was needed, that Howell’s shared baths were not sufficient to stop climate change in its tracks). And the Met Office’s boffins note that the past few years have seen the hottest summer and winter temperatures, the sunniest spring, the driest May, and the wettest day on record (October 3, 2020).
For economists, climate change is a classic example of the “tragedy of the commons”. In an 1833 essay, William Forster Lloyd warned about the impact of unregulated grazing on common land. From a climate perspective, if everyone is free to pollute without significant cost to themselves, everyone will indeed pollute — until, that is, humanity’s common land, Planet Earth, is frazzled.
Yet as our understanding of climate change has advanced, we’ve become better at knowing when to attribute extreme weather events to human-inspired climate change. Extreme weather attribution, as it’s called, asks a very simple question (even if the answers are more complex). Is the probability of a specific extreme weather event higher because of human-induced climate change than would otherwise have been the case?
In the case of the scorchingly-hot European summer of 2019 — the one that set records in the Cambridge Botanic Gardens — scientists concluded that the heatwave was around 10 times more likely because of human-induced climate change. As extreme weather attribution becomes more granular, climate scientists will become important witnesses in court cases in which specific companies may be held directly accountable for their climate-altering actions. That’s one reason why being green is today as much a financial imperative as a scientific or moral one. That must be a good thing. After all, the original tragedy of the Commons occurred precisely because no one had to pay.
Making people pay is, however, only part of the answer. We also must adopt technologies enabling economic activity to increase further while reducing the risk of further climate change. Otherwise, the billions of people living outside the developed world will have no chance of enjoying the living standards we tend to take for granted. Today’s sky-high energy prices aren’t pleasant for any of us but, to the degree they may encourage a faster transition to renewables, we might end up in a better place.
Sadly, energy transitions don’t happen overnight. Advances in photovoltaic cells have hugely increased the energy-harnessing capacities of solar panels but there is surely more to come, both in terms of harnessing energy and, with advances in battery technology, storing it. There is, however, good news. We are slowly weaning ourselves off the giant dirty underground battery — in the form of coal, oil and gas — that has done so much damage to the environment, even as living standards since the onset of the Industrial Revolution have advanced in leaps and bounds.
Stephen King (@kingeconomist) is HSBC’s senior economic adviser and author of Grave New World (Yale)