OPINION: Heatwave shows why we 'can't bury our heads in the sand'

David Ellesmere in his column this week looks at the boiling temperatures and the concerns for the future. 

David Ellesmere in his column this week looks at the boiling temperatures and the concerns for the future. - Credit: Archant

The boiling temperatures of last week have given us a worrying glimpse into what the future holds for Britain.

For two consecutive days the UK’s highest temperature record was smashed, with the thermometer topping 40 degrees centigrade for the first time ever.

This was not some extreme aberration that we won’t see again in our lifetimes. Britain is getting hotter.

Our previous record hottest temperature was only three years ago. All but one of Britain’s top ten hottest days were in the last thirty years. Most were in the last twenty.

It is a racing certainty that we will see even hotter days in future years.

This has real world consequences. We are becoming used to seeing apocalyptic scenes of wildfires destroying people’s homes in the US and southern Europe, but I doubt most of us ever thought we would see this in the UK.

Seeing nineteen homes destroyed in Wennington and families having to flee for their lives should shake us all out of our complacency.

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Although we have been lucky not to see such destruction in Suffolk it has been a narrow squeak.

The large number of fires on Tuesday put such a pressure on fire service resources that a major incident had to be declared. If we had reached the point where there weren’t any appliances to attend a fire, then the consequences could have been much more severe.

We are going to have to plan for longer and hotter summers becoming common in future and this will mean that we need more firefighters and fire engines to cope with demand.

This is just one small example of how things will have to change. Infrastructure in Britain has not been built to withstand these extreme temperatures. We have seen railway tracks buckle, overhead lines sag and roads and runways melt. We have seen schools and businesses close because their buildings turned into furnaces.

Of course, it is possible to construct new infrastructure and buildings that cope with high temperatures – as they already do in traditionally hot countries likes Spain and Greece – but it is more expensive. The cost of retrofitting existing infrastructure that is only designed to cope with a “normal” British summer is potentially enormous.

And this is only one side of the coin when it comes to the effects of climate change. As well as long hot summers we are also seeing wetter and windier winters with existing flood defence measures regularly overwhelmed and large-scale devastation caused by high winds.

We can’t bury our heads in the sand. Britain isn’t going to magically avoid the effects of global heating. It is going to affect all of us, and we need to plan for it.

This is on top of the work that needs to happen to dramatically cut carbon emissions because, if we keep pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the current rate, then temperatures will rise even higher and the cost of dealing with the consequences will be even higher.

This is the biggest long-term challenge we face as a country, and it is going to require a huge national effort to deal with it. It is going to cost a lot of money and we need to ensure that the burden falls on those most able to pay.

There needs to be a comprehensive plan to cut carbon emissions and to protect people from the financial and environmental effects of the changes we are already too late to stop. And there needs to be a national consensus on how to go about this. It is far bigger than traditional party politics and needs longer term investment than the lifetime of any single government.

If we get this right, we don’t have to fear the future. We can become self-sufficient in energy and stop our reliance on dodgy regimes in Russia and the Persian Gulf. We can cut energy bills for all by making homes and businesses more energy efficient. We can improve the quality of the air we breathe. We can provide well paid jobs in green industries.

Ipswich, as a strategic location in the East of England, is incredibly well placed to reap the economic benefits that such a wave of green investment would bring.

This has never been more urgent, but you’d be hard pressed to recognise this from the behaviour of Government ministers.

Too distracted by the Conservative Party leadership contest they spent last week knocking lumps out of each other while Britain boiled. Boris Johnson has checked out as Prime Minister, preferring to spend time joyriding in a fighter plane – at our expense – than do the job he is still being paid for and attend COBRA meetings on the heat emergency.

How we tackle climate change should be front and centre of the Conservative leadership debate, but Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss appear to be on a different planet. Sunak wants to keep the effective ban on onshore wind turbines – even where local communities want them – and Truss wants to scrap the green levy which pays for energy efficiency improvements in homes and businesses, helping vulnerable people, and encouraging take-up of renewable technology.

I’m generally an optimistic person but, if this is the best that the current political leadership of our country can manage, then I genuinely fear for the future we’re going to bequeath our children.