The British are famous for their tendency to talk about the weather – ‘more than nine in 10 Brits have talked about the weather in the last six hours’, reported the BBC back in 2015. In fact, we will spend more than four months of our lives talking about the weather, said The Independent in 2018. What a boost the recent heatwave must have given to those four months… Weather is front and centre to the national art of small talk, but it is time to elevate it to big talk.
2022 should now be the pivot point too many have missed. Not only did we see the UK’s warmest New Year’s Day on record (a balmy 16.3°C reached in St James’s Park, Central London), we also saw the hottest day ever recorded (a not so balmy 40.3°C in Coningsby, eastern England). Mild winters and searing summers are not to be celebrated in what is typically considered a temperate climate.
As the mercury rose, Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, encouraged us to “enjoy the sunshine” while the Daily Mail mocked the school closures and transport disruption of ‘snowflake Britain’. Meteorologists warning of the deadly impact and unprecedented nature of the startling new temperatures were condemned as ‘harbingers of doom’ and useless comparisons between our melting infrastructure and that of our typically hotter global neighbours abounded.
Though the tide did somewhat turn as major incident after major incident was declared across the country, with video footage of smoking, destroyed houses from Doncaster to London going viral, big talk is lacking. Nowhere more visibly, perhaps, than the ongoing debates between the Tory MPs currently vying for the top spot.
Beyond the party political sphere, there are more definite signs of engagement in the need – or otherwise – for climate action and climate policy, but whether this is better than small talk of weather is questionable. For example…
This is quite the tweet, shared on a platform of more than 100k followers. There is a lot to unpack here. But let’s put aside the history and geography lesson perhaps needed, and focus on the juxtaposition of ‘catastrophising’ climate change and that being a justification for widening inequality.
By 2050, the World Health Organisation suggests that climate change will be responsible for an additional 250,000 deaths per year. In the UK alone, the number of excess heat-related deaths is expected to triple.Older people and young infants are more at risk, but that risk is not uniform. The further up the social and economic hierarchy we sit, the better our chances of good health outcomes. Your ability to keep cool owes much to the sort of house that you live in which in turn owes much to what you earn, where you work, and before that, where you schooled and ultimately, the circumstances of your birth.
We should not catastrophise climate change, it would be wrong to blow something so serious wildly out of proportion with reality. But we should take it seriously, even when doing so raises the spectre of a catastrophe.
“To usher in a new way of living, the core dynamic of ever greater production and consumption of goods and resources must be broken, coupled with a societal focus on repairing the environmental damage of the past.”Maslin and Lewis, 2022: 99
Any narrative designed to make the poor poorer and the rich more powerful should be an anathema to us all. Proper regard to the devastation of climate change is not that. Neglect of what is now needed to adapt, mitigate and survive in the face of climate change, however, is.
The arrival of both the warmest New Year’s Day on record, and the hottest day ever on record, demand that we usher in a new way of living, recognising that lower carbon emissions than the 1800s are not the be all and end all of our future sustainability. A political consensus is needed that is not tied to the right or the left.
Professor Kate Raworth’s (2017) ‘donut economics’ is but one incredibly viable way to do just that, captured within the wider ethos of a care economy placing people and the planet at the centre of economic thinking. We are more than our economic output. We are more than our contribution to GDP. And the planet is more than a container for our economic activity.
Let’s not catastrophise climate change, but let’s not allow it become a catastrophe.
 Maslin M and Lewis SL (2022) Climate. In (eds) Hawkins M and Nadel J ‘How compassion can transform our politics, economy, and society’ Routledge: 99.