Paris has been breached: after the hottest month on record the UK should be speeding up, not backtracking on climate policy?

Sylvan Lutz, IF Researcher, argues that despite the global average surface temperature being 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in July 2023, the Uxbridge bi-election result is being seen as a moment to reduce climate action in the UK. Join IF in calling on all parties to increase climate ambition and to stop stealing a liveable climate from future generations.

The hottest month ever

It may not have felt like it on those rainy London afternoons, but July 2023 was likely the hottest month ever recorded according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). In both the 1st and the 3rd week of July, temperatures were more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. For the first time we have passed the limit that the world’s countries agreed to hold warming to at the Paris climate summit in 2015. While this does not mean that long-term warming is already above 1.5°C, it highlights how quickly average global temperatures are rising.

Increasing heat exposure is primarily driven by climate change

These extreme temperatures are a combination of two major phenomena:

(1) The cyclical El Niño weather pattern which, driven by warmer waters in the Pacific, temporarily increases global average surface temperatures by a fraction of a degree; and, far more significantly for July 2023s recorded breaking temperatures,

(2) human emissions of greenhouse gasses (GHG) into the atmosphere. Driven by human uses of fossil fuels (petrol, coal, gas) the atmosphere is storing more energy which has already raised global average surface temperatures by 1.2°C since 1700.

An increasingly hot planet is detrimental to future generations

This global average heating is not simply an academic exercise. The July 2023 heatwaves and wildfires have harmed people’s health and well-being as well as wrought havoc on local environments and economies. While it is too soon to know the damaging effects of the current heatwave, estimates from the 2003 Western European heatwave recorded heat-related deaths at 70, 000. A more recent 2021 heatwave in Western North America caused 1,037 excess deaths and resulted in Lytton, British Columbia being burnt to the ground. Scientists have found that the 2021 heatwave would have been impossible in the 1950s. It is a 1 in 200-year event at current levels of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere and could be a 1 in 10-year event in 2050.

We know that in the UK and around the world, extreme heat will only increase in frequency and severity as we continue to emit GHG into the atmosphere. Some experts predict that global heat deaths will increase “more than 90,000 in 2030 and 255,000 in 2050” compared to their current levels.

UK young people cannot afford for any party to backtrack on their climate commitments

Despite the global record-breaking heat, political parties in the UK are taking a soft stance on climate action as well as creating unnecessary controversy over key emissions reductions and air pollution measures like London’s ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ).

The Uxbridge by-election has been seen by many as a bellwether for the state of green policies in the UK. Some Conservatives are reading it as a rebuke of any climate-friendly policy with adjustment costs. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has even offered 100 new drilling licences in the North Sea to maximise domestic production of oil.

After Labour’s loss in Uxbridge, a seat they have not won in over 50 years, Sir Keir Starmer has hinted that he is willing to relax green policies, claiming that his party is doing something wrong if their policies are ending up on “every Tory leaflet.”

There is a tragic irony between the world’s hottest month ever and the worst month ever for London’s ULEZ. To effectively reduce emissions, all parties and levels of government must work together to support those, such as automobile commuters in Uxbridge, who face rising costs from new climate-friendly policy. The wrong answer is to buckle under minor opposition.

All political parties should remember the scorching heatwave experienced across the UK in July last year. 2022 was a year of extremes: it was the first time a temperature of 40°C was recorded in the UK, it broke records for sea surface temperatures near the UK coast and saw the driest January to August period since 1976. These islands, while cool this summer, are far from immune to the effects of global warming.

Its time to stop the largest intergenerational wealth grab and commit to stabilising our atmosphere

Against the backdrop of record-breaking and tragic heat, current generations continue to perpetuate the largest intergenerational wealth grab in history: the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. People today are consuming inequitable levels of energy, be it through flights to Mediterranean islands, larger and larger automobiles or ever-extended suburban homes which take more energy to travel to and heat.

While this is not necessarily bad on its own (it is good for societies to get richer over time), our actions today are simultaneously making young people and future generations worse off. Young people today will never experience the stable climate conditions that their parents were lucky enough to grow up in and young people of the future will have even more taken from them.

It is time for all political parties to stop using climate action as a political football, and to work together to rapidly reduce GHG emissions, here in the UK and around the world. Otherwise, in the summer of 2050, as we, or our children, sit sweltering in a poorly insulated and air-conditioned brown house, the global extreme heat of July 2023 or the UK heatwave of July 2022 will seem like nice memories of the coolest summers of the rest of our lives.

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Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash