One person’s humanitarian crisis is another’s footnote

July 13, 2022

In the summer of 2003, I spent six weeks with a study abroad program in London. I attended wonderful Shakespeare productions, traveled one weekend to Paris and another to Dublin, met a whole bunch of cool people — including Will, who gifted us with his pronunciation of “pendulous” while reading aloud from a trashy romance novel — and in almost all ways had a lovely time.

However, I also remember something that did not stick in the American popular memory: that summer, a deadly heatwave hit Europe for weeks.

Tens of thousands of people died when temperatures hovered in the high 90s in France and into the high 80s in the United Kingdom because there was very little air conditioning in that part of the world. Extremely hot weather has continued to intermittently afflict the region over the past two decades, and governments have implemented processes to alert their populations to impending dangerous weather. But that doesn’t change that the dangerous heat is still happening, or that there is little chance it will stop happening in the future, or that millions of people are still vulnerable.

In the coming days, it is likely that many people in the United Kingdom will die because of extreme heat. It will be avoidable in the sense that the government could treat this like the desperate humanitarian crisis it is, but also it will be unavoidable in the sense that western democracies tend to view saving lives as an actuarial exercise affecting gross domestic product more than an expression of valuing life, itself, as something special. (I am not in a position to opine on how the transfer of power from Prime Minister Boris Johnson to someone else might affect the government’s response.)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel, “The Ministry for the Future,” falls short in several unsatisfying ways — some of his proposed solutions to the climate crisis are portrayed in a head-scratchingly simplistic manner, and I believe he’s already walked back the novel’s embrace of cryptocurrency — but the book is at its best in the first chapter, when it describes a disastrous Indian heatwave, as experienced by an American working for a non-governmental agency there.

What is so brutal about the chapter is the protagonist’s initial optimism, concurrent with his fear, that he and his neighbors will get through the day, and yet small disasters keep piling up until the reader is presented with a devastating scene they have been led into, degree by degree, like the frog in the pot.

This is how the climate emergency has been happening for decades and will continue to happen. We will not have one day when Denmark suddenly becomes a tropical sauna. Rather, thousands of people here will die from a heatwave, thousands of people there. Perhaps there will be one that kills hundreds of thousands, like the 2004 Sumatra–Andaman earthquake and tsunami. If the COVID-19 pandemic is any indication, European and North American societies will largely normalize climate crisis deaths as regrettable, but a price worth paying to avoid inconveniencing those of us who would rather not change our behaviors.

Individuals can only do so much. It will take collective action, governmental action, to prevent these kinds of disasters moving forward. But we won’t get there until we reach a collective understanding that what is happening now is a disaster worth taking drastic measures, and we should have reorganized our societies to limit energy needs long ago.

(Photo: "Roman Fountain" by Susan Jane Golding. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)