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‘It’s apocalyptic’: young climate activists on the UK heatwave

As temperatures over 40 are expected in some parts of the country today, three climate activists voice their concerns for the future

In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s hot. Not the kind of ‘hot’ that’s normal in the UK, not a tepid 20 degrees celsius – but really, genuinely hot. As I type this, it’s currently the same temperature in London, England as in Cairo, Egypt, on the tip of the Sahara Desert: 37 degrees.

Back in July 2019, a record high of 38.7 degrees celsius was recorded in Cambridge – at the time, an all-time record. In 2020, meteorologists at the UK Met Office created a mock-up weather forecast imagining the weather in 2050, showing temperatures in the 40s across much of the UK.

Now, this imagined forecast is inching ever closer to reality with temperatures in the high 30s forecast on Monday and Tuesday across the country this week. In Worksop, Nottinghamshire, a high of 41 degrees is forecast for Tuesday afternoon. The NHS is bracing itself for a surge in hospital admittances during the extreme weather, and up to 10,000 excess deaths are expected. The Met Office has even issued its first-ever red weather warning for extreme heat.

“I think the current heatwave in the UK is absolutely terrifying,” says 18-year-old climate activist and policy writer Scarlett Westbrook. “I can understand that some people are enjoying the hot weather, but it’s not even ‘nice’ hot weather. In the UK we have so much air pollution that when it’s hot, the air is so thick and smoggy and the humidity is just so horrible.”

“Yesterday felt apocalyptic,” adds climate activist Daze Aghaji, 22. “We had this crazy heatwave, which is a very extreme sign of the climate crisis, as the backdrop to a Tory leadership competition that's not even really recognising what's going on.” Aghaji adds that she feels “gaslit” by politicians and “extremely anxious” about the planet’s trajectory.

Naturally, there are those who will read grim facts about the weather and simply shrug it off. It’s summer! It’s supposed to be hot! Stop complaining! Conservative MP Sir John Hayes is one of these smooth-brained climate deniers: at the weekend, he insisted that warnings about the heat were evidence of a “cowardly new world where we live in a country where we are frightened of the heat” before going on to say that “it is not surprising that in snowflake Britain the snowflakes are melting.”

Westbrook strongly disagrees with this line of argument. “Lots of people are saying we dealt with heatwaves in the past, but this is global warming. This isn’t natural or normal,” she says. We’re not meant to be seeing these temperatures. The temperatures we’re seeing this week are temperatures that meteorologists predicted we would see in 2050. So for these to have come nearly 30 years early is terrifying.”

22-year-old Dominique Palmer is another climate activist. “I think that the media needs to stop treating this as ‘vacation weather’ and calling it a ‘scorcher’ and start relaying the reality of the situation,” she says. “We need climate action now. Otherwise, what future are we facing? We are hitting 2050 targets today in 2022.”

Obviously, it’s not meant to be this hot, and we’re now reckoning with something entirely unprecedented in this country. The worst is yet to come, too: according to the Met Office, hot summers are now 30 times more likely to happen due to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In the UK, where our homes are poorly insulated and our infrastructure was built in the Victorian era before the climate crisis took hold, we’re woefully ill-equipped to deal with heat. Right now, homes and offices are overheating; tarmac and rail tracks are melting, and the NHS faces breaking point as cases of heat-related conditions soar.

We don’t have the infrastructure needed to support heatwaves like this in the UK. Our houses aren't built for anything other than a temperate climate,” Westbrook adds. “We don’at have air conditioning, fans are expensive and there are no government provisions to help people cope with that.”

“We don't have the infrastructure needed to support heatwaves like this in the UK. Our houses aren't built for anything other than a temperate climate” – Scarlett Westbrook

“So many people are going to die because of this – particularly elderly people or people living in poverty too. We know that this is going to have an enormous impact on the NHS, which is already stretched,” she continues. “A lot of the messaging from the government is that people should just spend lots of money on sun cream, rehydration tablets, and fans, without acknowledging what a privilege it is to even be able to do that. There are people in detention centres and immigration centres, refugees, homeless people – all of these people don't have the ability to do that.”

As UCL professor Bill McGuire put it in the Guardian on Monday, future generations will view this summer as a “cool” one. He writes: “In the decades ahead, summers are set to get ever hotter and last longer, overwhelming the other seasons, and reducing winter to a couple of dreary months punctuated by damaging storms and destructive floods.”

It’s bleak – but this is ultimately what motivates Palmer. “This is why as an activist I rise up and apply pressure on our government because they need to take the action to save lives today, safeguard our future, and to prioritise us, the people and our planet, instead of lining the pockets of fossil fuel companies and fossil fuel lobbyists,” she says. “It's so important to remember that although we're running out of time, we still have a chance right now and we need to use all the time that we have.”