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Sexy Beast, 2000
Sexy Beast, 2000(Film still)

Should we feel guilty about enjoying the hot weather?

It’s hot and I'm confused

I have a cast-iron rule of never complaining about hot weather in Britain, on the basis that it’s almost always short-lived. But this week has finally tested that resolve. Earlier today, the Met Office released its first-ever “red warning for extreme heat, and predicted that temperatures could soar to a record-breaking 40 degrees.

Just like every heatwave in recent years, there’s been a widespread backlash to the media’s ‘fun in the sun’ framing, usually featuring images of young women frolicking by the sea with headlines like “PHWOAR!” This framing is obviously irresponsible, packaging what ought to be a harbinger of the apocalypse as a piece of feel-good fluff. It also ignores the fact that for many demographics – the elderly, homeless, ill or people who live in poor-quality housing – heatwaves represent a public health crisis, rather than an opportunity to recreate the volleyball scene from Top Gun. In fact, the Met’s latest warning has clarified that the entire population faces adverse health risks from this weather, and not just “those most vulnerable to extreme heat”. So should we feel guilty about enjoying it?

To be clear, it’s not like climate change activists are going around scolding people for enjoying the sun; mostly, the issue is around the media’s framing rather than people’s individual attitudes. But as someone who enjoys heatwaves (up to a point), I do feel a little ambiguous. In northern countries like the UK, the climate crisis has led to weather that some consider an improvement, while in places such as India and Pakistan the effects have already been deadly. This is a clear example of climate injustice on a global scale – the countries most responsible for carbon emissions aren’t paying the greatest price. But many things in life aren’t fair, and it’s worth recognising that all sorts of unjust situations benefit us personally, and that many of the things we enjoy – from food products to clothes to drugs – are dependent on the suffering of others. Enjoying a heatwave is hardly the most egregious example of this. It’s unfair that for some people, the heatwave means Balearic evenings on rooftop bars while for others, it entails misery and even death – but the former bears no relation to the latter. Neither embracing nor complaining about the heat will do anything to prevent it, and our will to act shouldn’t be dependent on self-interest alone.  

There’s also no reason to think that enjoying extreme weather goes hand-in-hand with apathy. While there are plenty of climate change deniers insisting that the heatwave is perfectly normal, there are others who are fully aware of the grim implications but like it all the same. If you’re enjoying it now, there’s something to be said for enjoying it while it lasts: in the UK, the summer months look set to become hotter and more prolonged; there will be more extreme weather events like floods, storms, droughts and wildfires, alongside structural failures such as power cuts and transport delays. It’s comforting to imagine that higher temperatures will allow us to embrace a Mediterranean lifestyle, but the reality will inevitably be less idyllic: our infrastructure just isn’t built for it. Instead of being a rare treat, hot spells will become another adverse weather condition to be managed, like blizzards or floods. The British summer, defined by its transience, will start to feel like a Southern Gothic novel: endless, torpid and oppressive. 

This is going to happen whether we like it or not. So, is there a middle ground between the people who enjoy these high temperatures and the people who hate them? How could we make the coming summers better for everyone, regardless of their vulnerabilities or personal preferences? As a heatwave centrist, I offer one policy proposal: we should all be allowed to sack off work when the temperature reaches a certain level. Jeremy Corbyn once proposed this, but sadly the British electorate chose to vote for the misery of being stuck inside all summer, loading up Slack as the chime of an ice cream van rings mockingly in the distance. 

This proposal might not work for every industry (people who work in the NHS are now busier than ever), but lots of jobs simply aren’t that important. And while it might sound far-fetched, it has historical precedents: in the pre-industrial past, our working lives changed with the seasons. People generally worked more in summer, but they often enjoyed long breaks, afternoon naps, feasts and festivals. We can also look at lifestyle habits that have emerged in places with naturally hotter climates. In recent decades, the decline of the siesta has been proven to have had adverse health effects on people in the Mediterranean: one Harvard study of over 23,000 Greek adults found that those who had abandoned regular siestas went on to suffer a 37 per cent increased risk of death from heart disease. Reviving these traditions, and making adaptations to the ways we work and live, would make the coming heat more bearable for everyone. In the summertime, living should be easy. 

The reality is that the climate crisis won’t affect us all equally. In the hottest parts of America, they drive around in air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned shops and restaurants, and it’s only the poor who are left to rely on the threadbare public transport system. It’s a bleak vision of what the climate crisis will look like as it progresses, with the wealthy able to shelter from its worst effects and the poor left to bake in the glaring sun. But while it might be too late to prevent climate change entirely, it’s not too late to affect how it plays out. We still have an obligation to the people of the Global South – and the most vulnerable in our own societies – even if some of the effects of climate change might be to our own individual tastes. We should care about things that don’t impact us personally or impact us less than others. There are things we can do right now: for example, the Museum of Homelessness recommends carrying cold water and SPF to offer people on the street. 

If you are in the fortunate position of having the temperament and resilience to enjoy the heatwave, that’s fine – life is miserable at the moment and you should take whatever happiness you can get. But maybe consider doing something to offset the moral cost, like donating to Greenpeace, planting a tree or assassinating the CEO of Shell.