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Voices: We can’t just ‘keep calm and carry on’ when it comes to the heatwave – here’s what we need to do now

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Phew! What a scorcher! We’re really not ready for this sort of thing, are we? Nor, I would say, should we be. It’s not healthy to get used to this, in any sense. We need to get it stopped, we need to stop the climate crisis – and we need to be honest that it is going to hurt. Prevention is better than cure, especially when there is no cure.

There is some wild talk at the moment about mitigations we could be making to deal with heatwaves like this, which will be certainly more common in the decades to come. On a plausible bad case scenario, such spikes as these may arrive every three years or so; on a more optimistic scenario about every 15 years. What should we do?

We should certainly not shrug and learn to live with it (same goes for Covid, but that’s another story). The present spike will be over by Wednesday, but comparisons with the long dry summer of 1976 (which some of us sunbathed all the way through), are still apt.

The point about the summer of ’76 was that it was such a prolonged period of hot weather it caused drought, with standpipes in the street, the appointment of a “minister of rain” (the political urge to pointless intervention is nothing new) and the potato crop failed. As an unexpected bonus, that meant that the school dinner ladies had to give the kids “potato substitutes”, which meant such exotic delicacies as rice and pasta. Thus was the nation’s cuisine altered forever.

We are nowhere near that this year, but if the sort of summer we had in ’76 is going to arrive more frequently, there’s still a little case for palliatives. Almost anything we can do in the way of mitigation would be either futile or make matters worse.

One of the silliest of ideas is to start installing air conditioning everywhere, which would obviously add to energy consumption and production of greenhouse gases, which cause the problem in the first place, via climate change. We could build collonaded city centres, to keep the dwindling band of shoppers cool, as they do in Italy, but that would require vast quantities of concrete and steel, and, thus, yet more energy consumption and greenhouse gasses.

Similarly, we could resurface all the roads and replace all the rail tracks, but again it seems disproportionate and represents the wrong attitude – adapting to the climate crisis, which is ultimately impossible, rather than preventing it. If long summers at 40 degrees plus happen all the time in the UK, we’ll have even more important things to worry about than avoiding heatstroke – such as finding enough food and water to sustain the population.

So we shouldn’t succumb to the temptation to just order another ice cold lager or crisp Pinot Grigio, bask in the sunshine and convert our homes into giant fridges. The worse thing we can do is install an ugly, noisy, wasteful air conditioning unit; the best thing we can do is cut our energy consumption, even if that hurts. We want and need our damp, tepid summers back please!

Someone has to get up and say that restricting climate change and greenhouse gas emissions means we will have a worse standard of living than we have been used to in the disastrous era of cheap gas, when we blithely burned this precious reserve in the North Sea to generate low-cost electricity (and partly because the Tories wanted to spite the coal miners).

The Greens, for all their eccentricities, are at least brutally honest about what a green future means – such as taking few, if any long-haul flights to go on holiday, running smaller cars and consuming less meat. It means we have to get serious about net zero, beyond doing a bit of recycling.

It is expensive to invest in green energy, especially nuclear power, even if it makes long-term sense. In some ways it is uneconomic. Fracking and getting more out of the North Sea to get gas and fuel bills down (which wouldn’t feed through for years anyway) have a stronger business case, but it just means burning more fossil fuels, and adding to the global problem. I fear the cost of living crisis is being used, weaponised, to edge the nation away from Net Zero and back towards that facile solution.

At the moment, there are indeed worrying signs that the next prime minister will – euphemism alert – “pause” (ie weaken or scrap) the drive to get to Net Zero, and cut fuel duties and the green levy to make it cheaper to burn fossil fuels and cut the funding for new clean energy and insulating homes.

Kemi Badenoch, for example, says she won’t support Net Zero if it means bankrupting the country, or sending industry overseas, though she’s not provided evidence for why either would be the case under COP26 commitments: “If there are things in the plan that will bankrupt this country, I will change them, if there are things in the plan that will make life difficult for ordinary people, I will change them… I do believe in climate change, but we have to do it in a way that is sustainable.”

Again, note the “but”, the cakeist complacency, the refusal to accept that our way of life will become more difficult if we want to save life on Earth.

Liz Truss said she backed the target, because openly admitting ditching it would be too honest, but “we need to deliver it in a way that doesn’t harm people and businesses”, and she wants a moratorium on the green levy on energy bills.

Penny Mordaunt wants to make petrol and diesel much cheaper; which means burning more fuel in our old, dirty, automobiles. Yet people and businesses will be harmed, in the short run, by the switch to green energy. There will be losers, same as from all economic change.

Rishi Sunak backed the target, saying it was about the inheritance left to children and grandchildren, which is more encouraging: “But we need to bring people with us and if we go too hard and too fast then we will lose people and that’s no way to get there.” You see: There’s always a “but”.

There is still no sense of the existential dangers of climate change. As Badenoch correctly points out, to be fair, a “2050” target stretches far out to a time when even this Tory government will have been kicked out of office and the Tory famous five doing their Weakest Link routine will be long gone to I’m a Celebrity…, Strictly, the House of Lords – or all three.

So, a stronger plan is needed to get things done – but none of the candidates have published such a thing, for fear of frightening their selectorate, who’d rather forget all about this inconvenient climate change stuff.

Although many of the Tory leadership candidates talk, rightly, about telling the public the truth and ditching the Johnsonian fantasies of “cakeism”, cake remains a dangerously addictive drug to them, political speaking. On a broader front, none of them dare acknowledge that some of our inflation has been caused by Brexit, which devalued the pound, created labour shortages, pushed up business costs and disrupted supply chains.

It has made high gas and electricity bills even more unaffordable. Inflation is usually caused by too much money chasing too few foods; but Britain’s present inflation isn’t caused by excess demand so much as by a sudden sharp drop in the supply of goods and services, exacerbated by Brexit.

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Neither interest rate hikes or tax cuts will fix that shortfall in the productive capacity of the economy. Even now, we’re not even being told about the unpalatable options and harsher low-growth future that awaits us post-Brexit. Without facing up to that, any incoming government is doomed to failure and to disappointing the electorate.

By the same token, this unprecedented super-hot weather is mother nature’s cry for help – but our leaders would prefer to ignore it, even with the evidence beating down on us.

These few days of freakish weather are a symptom of manmade climate change, and stopping getting it much worse, and more normal than freakish, means taking some hard decisions about the price of energy, the up-front cost of investing in the clean, green future and long-term higher bills for running a home, buying an electric car and not going abroad for a vacation.

The first mainstream politician who promises you that will be telling you the unvarnished truth, and you should vote for them. That doesn’t include Sunak, Mordaunt, Badenoch, Tugendhat or Truss.

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