There’s a disconnect between the urgency of climate science and the indifference of governments, media and business to act. Are we too late?

Europe caught napping on climate change as heatwaves spread 1

Firefighters at the scene of a wildfire in Tabara, Spain, 19 July 2022 (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

“I want you to panic. I want you to act as if your house was on fire,” Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, famously said at the 2019 World Economic Forum at Davos.

For the past couple of weeks, Europe’s house has quite literally been on fire.

Record temperatures forced five countries to declare states of emergency or issue red alerts. More than 16,000 people were evacuated in France because of forest fires near Bordeaux. Spain, Portugal and Croatia have struggled with wildfires, which have destroyed more than 80,000 hectares of forest across Spain.

In the UK, temperatures reached record levels last week, sparking fires around London and prompting fire services to declare major incidents as blazes destroyed homes.

These fires and the extreme temperatures in Europe have been linked to climate change.

“Climate change has already influenced the likelihood of temperature extremes in the UK,” Met Office climate attribution scientist Nikos Christidis said on July 15, adding that the likelihood of temperatures of 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit) were around 10 times more likely now than they would be in an environment unaffected by human influence.

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we are now living in the hottest period the world has witnessed in 125,000 years, accounting for the increasingly extreme temperatures witnessed in Europe.

This heat is largely the result of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which the IPCC estimates is now at the highest levels seen for two million years.

But panic has not yet set in.

“There remains a disconnect.”

Several news channels, including GB News, reported that the heatwave in London was a reason for celebration and dismissed the rise of “fatalistic” meteorologists, who warned of large numbers of excess deaths as a consequence.

Others, too, seemed unperturbed that fires were ravaging the continent.

In the UK, the battle to be the next prime minister has seen potential candidates discuss tax cuts and the cost-of-living crisis, but discussion of climate change was limited until Alok Sharma, the President of COP26, threatened to resign if the new prime minister did not take a strong stance on the climate.

Under pressure, the remaining candidates —Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss — have both pledged to meet Net Zero by 2050.

Still, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, comprising around 20 Conservative members of parliament, is pushing the new prime minister to postpone plans to meet the 2050 goal, arguing it is too expensive.

“There remains a disconnect between the urgency of climate science, political action and the activities of financial markets,” said Joel Benjamin, Senior Comms Officer at Carbon Tracker, an independent think tank. He said much of the delay is due to lobbying and disinformation on the part of the fossil fuel industry.

Climate apathy grows in light of other crises.

Complacency is not just a problem in the UK.

The war in Ukraine and strainged relations with Russia, which provided the European Union 45% of its gas in 2021, have prompted energy shortages that have troubled leaders around the continent.

Benjamin said the war in Ukraine, coupled with high inflation and concerns around the economy, has put climate concerns on the back burner for some.  “It has been a depressing six months in terms of backsliding on climate action by politicians,” he said.

Keen to address energy shortages, some countries have resorted to coal and new gas developments.

According to the Washington Post, the use of hard coal and lignite in the EU rose 12% in the first quarter of 2022 compared with the first quarter of 2021.

Meanwhile, several countries are shopping around for other sources of gas. Germany has pledged to help develop gas fields off the coast of Senegal, which could take years to come to fruition, while Italy has signed new deals for gas resources from Algeria and Egypt.

This would mark a step back from pledges made by many European leaders at COP26 to halt all investments in new fossil fuel projects.

Amid the surge in demand for new energy sources, the EU voted in July to designate gas and nuclear as sustainable energy sources. The new EU taxonomy designation, part of a system to promote investment in renewable energy, “opens the way for money pouring into gas, mislabelled as sustainable energy,” said Benjamin. “It sets a bad precedent and has been viewed as climate hypocrisy by developing African nations.”

Development of renewable energy accelerates — but is it too late?

It has not been all bad news for climate activists, however.

Energy shortages have thrown a spotlight on renewable power and energy independence. Benjamin noted that the energy crisis and high fossil fuel prices have made the price of renewable energy more attractive, with renewables now around four times cheaper than gas power.

“Within a small number of years, it will be impossible to justify new fossil fuel projects anywhere on economic grounds relative to clean energy,” he said. “Tthe business case will evaporate.”

Indeed, Germany, despite its new gas investments, has brought forward its ambition to generate all power with renewable sources by more than a decade to 2035.

Still, as blazes raged over the continent, some questioned whether it is too little, too late.

Benjamin said we “need to fundamentally change how our economies function and de-carbonise the way they’re powered.And the bulk of this work needs to happen this decade, not in 2050.”

The UN’s Environment Programme released an emissions gap report in October 2021, indicating that despite pledges to keep global temperature rises under 1.5°C this century versus pre-industrial levels, the world is on a trajectory that would lead to warming of 2.7°C.

It noted that current plans to address climate change would result in cuts to greenhouse gas emissions by around 7.5% by 2030. Yet, to keep 1.5°C alive, the world would require a cut of 55% by 2030.

Maybe Thunberg was right. Maybe it’s time to panic.

Three questions to consider:

  1. What do you think it will take for governments, business and media to feel like their “house is on fire”?
  2. How should governments balance rising costs of living and energy shortages with investing in climate issues?
  3. What role does disinformation play in apathy around climate issues?
Jessica Moody

Jessica Moody has a PhD from Kings College London, with research focusing on post-conflict peace-building in Côte d’Ivoire. Moody is also a research assistant for the atrocity prevention project at the Holocaust Memorial Museum and works as a freelance political risk analyst focusing on west and central Africa. She has appeared on podcasts Into Africa and Foreign Exchanges, and has written for publications including Foreign Policy, IHS, the Economist Intelligence Unit, The FT’s “This is Africa” publication and African Arguments.

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ScienceEnvironmentEurope caught napping on climate change as heatwaves spread