Extreme Heat in the UK Sparks a Climate Culture War

“Calm down, it’s just a sunny day.” That was the refrain from a small but powerful section of the British establishment this week, as temperatures in the U.K.—where summer highs rarely reach 30°C (86°F)—topped 40°C (104°F) for the first time in recorded history. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, of the ruling Conservative party, told the public to relax and “enjoy the sunshine.” Conservative lawmaker John Hayes called people who worried about the heat “cowardly.” Rightwing newspaper Daily Mail bemoaned the “Sunny day Snowflake Britain had a meltdown.”Another tabloid is theDaily Express offered a cheery spin on the U.K.’s famous wartime slogan: “It’s not the end of the world: just stay cool and carry on.”

The Blitz spirit couldn’t stop runways from melting at U.K. airports this week, though, or help London firefighters put out blazes that raged across overheated buildings, or give school kids enough energyTo learn. The heat and oppressive effects of living in a climate different to ours was overwhelming for most people.

This disconnect between what the heat felt like and the picture that right-wing columnists and politicians painted is reminiscent of how climate change has been politicized in America. Two sides see different things from the outside. Like the original, the imported culture war is financed by fossil fuel money: Hayes receives a £50,000-a-year salary (nearly $60,000) from an oil company; the Daily MailThe full page was printed op-ed arguing against meteorologists’ “doom-laden” heat warnings, written by an energy company consultant.

WENNINGTON, GREATER LONDON, JULY 19,: This aerial view shows smoke from fires that were lit in residential areas. It was taken on July 19, 2022, in Wennington. In the midst of intense heatwave, a number of grass fires erupted around the British capital.

Getty Images—2022 Getty Images

The U.K. Conservatives, like those in the U.S., have turned from questioning the existence and necessity of climate change to disputing it. Editorial for the Telegraph newspaper claimed that the U.K.’s heatwave is a sign that efforts to stop global warming have failed, and are too expensive, so we should focus on adapting to it instead. (Neither British people, let alone the billions of people who live in more climate-vulnerable countries, can adapt to the level of climate breakdown that will take place if we don’t rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions.)

Although they may not be the majority, such editors are still a significant part of British society. However, they hold significant influence on the U.K. government’s future. The Conservative Party has entered a leadership race after the resignation of Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Next Prime Minister: The winner. The two contenders left in the race have “generally” or “almost always” voted against measures to respond to climate change, according to a parliamentary data watchdog. They will now seek endorsements from rightwing media outlets who are sceptical of the U.K.’s 2050 net-zero target, and frame fossil fuel investment as the answer to the energy price crisis.

The vast majority of British citizens are not included in the climate discussion between politicians and right-wing commentators. Those trying to turn climate action into a culture war claim they’re fighting against the tyranny of progressive dogma, for greater flexibility in how we address our environmental challenges. But that definition of freedom doesn’t make sense for most of us, argues Tom Burke, a veteran U.K. government adviser and co-founder of climate think tank E3G. “There’s a whole group of the public who are really interested in freedom From all the things that will disrupt our lives if we don’t deal with climate change. They have to fight against climate change. [smaller]A group of people who are passionate about freedom To burn all the fossil fuels they want.”

The U.S. has shown what happens when a national discussion on climate change is separated from how people actually experience climate impacts. Congress, thanks to opposition by the whole Republican party and one of its fossil fuel-sponsored Democrats, failed to pass significant climate legislation, despite polls showing a large majority of Americans in support of more action.

The good news is, you can’t gaslight people out of feeling extreme temperatures—no matter how many times you call them a snowflake. We need to do more to get those at the top to feel the heat.

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