It is very hot in Britain. At midday on Tuesday, the U.K. recorded its highest-ever temperature of 40.3 degrees Celsius, or 104.5 Farenheit.
Before people who live in Death Valley get angry with me, let me explain why that does in fact count as “very hot” here in London. Our summers used to involve a couple of weeks in the early 20s (around 70 Fahrenheit for Americans), a good bit of rain, and complaints that summer “never really came this year.” No longer. Now, you can bank on weather in the 20s, yes, but also one week where it becomes impossible to remain sane as temperatures and tempers skyrocket. We live in homes originally built for shivering chimney sweeps or something, and so on the whole, homes are built to keep heat in. I have never been in a home in this country that had air conditioning. Most of us didn’t even know how to keep a house cool until a few years ago when this first started happening consistently, blithely leaving our windows open and saying “I’ll just buy a fan if it gets hot” every day for a month until they sell out when it does in fact get hot.
How are we dealing with it? Not well. There is nothing like a weather event to short fuse the collective consciousness of the United Kingdom at the best of times. Temperatures in double digits Celsius are enough to guarantee that there will be British people out in the parks sunbathing. So instead of hearing 40 degrees Celsius and thinking “batten down the hatches, it’s time for a cold bath,” they think “tops off lads, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime tanning opportunity.” We can’t, as a nation, get our head around what it means to live in that heat. I went out to buy some food, battling headwinds that felt like standing in front of an oven, and found myself reading car number plates and not quite being able to remember how the shapes of the letters connect to the sounds you make when you say them.
And all our infrastructure was built with lower temperatures in mind. Chaos has reigned. There were train tracks on fire, roads and airport runways melting, police smashing car windows to rescue boiling dogs, forest fires, suburban houses all over London burning down, Beefeaters being given bottles of water to suckle from like baby goats, surgeries cancelled because operating theatres were too hot, ambulances being called out left right and center to treat heat exposure, people’s leather sofas and rubbish bins and fences going up in flames. Every lush green park in the south of England looked like New Mexico overnight.
The hotter it got, the more insane the advice trotted out to deal with the heat became. Don’t put an ice pop in any of the body’s less salubrious holes, carry frozen vegetables under your top on the train, rub yourself with a raw onion. And look, some of the heatwave madness is funny—of course it is. It’s funny to see videos of a burnt Englishman yelling at a passerby about their right to enjoy a cocktail in their own wheelie bin filled up with water undisturbed. It’s funny that Sky News ran splitscreen coverage of the heatwave with a livestream of the sun on one side like it was O.J. Simpson on the freeway. With all due respect to the animals involved, it is funny that Welsh pigs had to be lathered with suncream ahead of an agricultural fair. It’s funny that one cinema chain offered free tickets to ginger people. It’s funny that chocolate deliveries were suspended because makers remembered the summer of 1990 when the entire stock of a chocolate factory in Liverpool melted.
But some of it is not. Obviously, the writing is on the wall in terms of the climate crisis. Bill McGuire, a University College London professor of geophysical and climate hazards, told the Guardian that “this is just the beginning. When our children are our age, they will yearn for a summer as ‘cool’ as 2022, because long before the century’s end, 40C-plus heat will be nothing to write home about in the climate-mangled world they inherit.” Another news report claimed that “researchers are also increasingly concerned that extreme heatwaves in Europe are occurring more rapidly than models had suggested.” Nobody wants to read these things while housebound and immobile under a collection of wet tea towels they put in the freezer.
Then again, we knew all this. Scarier, almost, is that the heat managed to become a culture war issue—not even climate change, but the heat itself. People who haven’t had a drink of water since they accidentally opened their mouth in the shower some time in the late ’90s posted online about how allowing kids to wear their gym clothes instead of a school uniform is “woke bullshit”; how Winston Churchill wouldn’t be bitching about a little sunshine, he’d be out there on the beaches with a rapidly warming pint of lager, chuffing on that cigar and turning the colour of Pepto Bismol. Brendan O’Neill, a commentator famous in this country primarily for having a large forehead, wrote an article saying that people talking about the hot weather in relation to global warming is proof that climate change activists are a medieval “End of Days cult.” Another climate skeptic, James Whale, claimed in the Express that the reason the climate is getting hotter is that the planet is moving closer to the sun. A meteorologist on right-wing GB News was lambasted for not seeming excited for unprecedented heat and instead reporting on the likely excess deaths. Sir John Hayes, one of the nation’s large supporting cast of grisled Tory MPs and (yes) the former energy and climate change minister, said that “this is not a brave new world but a cowardly new world where we live in a country where we are frightened of the heat.” Hayes has been given a £50,000 salary by an oil company since 2018.
Late last night, the heat broke and rain swept over London. We’ll probably get warm, cloudy days for the rest of the summer. But this heatwave was a Petri dish in which to examine precisely how fucked the country is for the rapidly accelerating climate emergency. The results do not look good.