It’s raining as I write, bringing a welcome dose of cool air after several days of high temperatures. Our house has a tendency to overheat since our neighbour cut down a shading tree, and the family has been taking refuge from the heatwave in nearby woods and rivers.
When we Brits talk about heatwaves we mean temperatures that reach as high as, you know, 34 or 35 degrees celsius. These are not temperatures that will illicit much sympathy from readers in more Equatorial regions. To put things in perspective, here’s a global map of temperatures right now:
The red band of extreme heat runs across the Sahara Desert, which is no great surprise, and into the Middle East. Parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen are as hot as the colour chart can go. So are areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
Climate change increases the chances of heatwaves. A Met Office report into the 2018 heatwave in Britain concluded that climate change had made it thirty times more likely. Of all climate impacts, heatwaves are already the most deadly in developed countries, a fact that is almost entirely invisible in their reporting.
To understand what an increase in heatwaves means for the world though, British folks like me need to step outside of our temperate perspective. While there are adaptations we might need to make to our houses, transport systems and working practices, imagine what a heatwave means in that red band. Pakistan, for example, experienced temperatures of 53.5 degrees C in 2017.
My point is not to trivialise heatwaves in Britain, but to highlight the inequality of climate change effects. The extra heat of global warming is much more serious, even life threatening, in the hottest parts of the world.
In many cases, those suffering extremes of heat have contributed very little by way of carbon emissions. On the map above, the ones that jump out to me are the sub-Saharan band of Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan. Luton Airport, a mile down the road from me, is responsible for around the same carbon emissions as the entire nation of Chad.
This is why climate change is a justice issue. It’s also a matter of race, since the places most affected are populated by people of colour, as my forthcoming book will explore in more detail. (If it emerges from the current Covid/Brexit meltdown in publishing)
The biggest increase in the number of heatwaves has been in the Middle East, parts of Africa and South America. The poorer the country, the less equipped people are to deal with extremes. At the same time, the poorer the country, the less effective the monitoring and reporting will be. Researchers warn that heatwaves in Africa are often unrecorded, making them invisible.
Exposure to extreme heat is already a major global injustice, and one that will only get worse as the climate emergency unfolds.