What do we do about the heatwave?

A car drives on a mountain road with clouds of smoke in the background

The heatwave has turned deadly. Tinder-dry fields and forests in Europe, most dramatically in Greece, have burst into flames, with catastrophic results. Crops are failing; for some, the health risks of the heat are critical.

These events have added urgency and weight to the calls to put the weather in context. A hot day is just a hot day; a heatwave may just be a heatwave; but zoom out, and the role of our influence on the climate is revealed.

Set in context, wildfires and water shortages raise simple questions with complicated answers. What is it about the way human beings organise themselves, that makes us (some of us) carry on adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere at such a rate? What should we, can we, do differently? How do we decide?

Of course, not everyone wants these questions to be asked. But even among those who do, the answers are not straightforward. Beyond a simple desire to cut emissions and help those in need, the possible pathways multiply. What kind of energy, transport, food, water, cities do we want and need? Who is ‘we’? Who should pay?

In the face of urgent calls for radical change, amid the horrors of hunger, fire and thirst, asking these questions might seem indulgent. But in fact they are as inescapable as a tidal wave. Ignore them, and they come back again and again. This is because they are political questions, and a radical change from one system to another involves politics: a space, however small, must be created for new decisions to be discussed, made and implemented.

It is no exaggeration to say that the size and shape of this space is a matter of life and death. The consequences of the decisions made are real, and they are usually seriously unfair.

Climate politics is a tangle. This doesn’t mean that constructive action is impossible. The questions involved in meaningful climate action don’t all have to be solved at once. Radical action can be taken in particular places. A nation gets ready to divest from fossil fuels. A small community builds its own energy supply. A coalition of entrepreneurs, researchers and funders invent an ingenious way for millions to afford solar power.

But however urgent the calls to action, however compelling the science, and however inspiring the progress made, we can’t avoid the questions which must be asked in order to guide change. Which way, who decides? How do we weigh up the evidence for particular kinds of change – mobilising new technologies, changing the tax system, or passing new laws? Whose knowledge is put to use, and whose is disregarded? How do we deal with and prepare for uncertainties – whether over specific risks, ambiguities, surprises or unknown unknowns? What values do we cling to most dearly, and which ones must be left aside? If climate refugees become a reality, will we — say in Europe – step up to take care of them? How do we avoid the call to ‘do something’ turning into the call to ‘do anything’?

Arguably, these questions are equally as urgent as climate action itself. Perhaps they are even more urgent, in a way. This is because they need to be asked before it is too late. If the more extreme scenarios considered by climate scientists come to pass, the spaces for asking and deliberation will close. In some places, this may be already happening.

We should not celebrate this closure. Powerful industrial and security interests will lose no time in moving in to take control. Even an imaginary or potential dystopia is enough to make this happen. Fatalism is powerful fuel to this fire.

This is why calls for urgent action on climate change should be accompanied by an equally urgent and serious attempt to work through these questions: to work out what rapid transformation would really look like in different places, to learn from history, to build new alliances across cultures. Those tempted to despair should dive into the hope that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. If things might get really uncertain, then why don’t we learn from those who are used to it – for whom uncertainty is a part of life?

Creating these spaces may open the way to even more radical action than we might have imagined possible. Not just on the things that cause heatwaves, but on the ways we organise our livelihoods, our money, our relationships and the places where we live.