The UK will experience more frequent weather extremes, including severe heat, scientists have warned. Experts agree that the accelerating climate crisis is to blame. And it can’t be denied that intervention from major corporations is required to make lasting changes. But does that mean there’s nothing we, as individuals, can do to help?
What is the climate crisis?
The climate crisis is relatively new to mainstream media, but we have known about the issue for over a century. French physicist Joseph Fourier wrote about the Earth’s natural ‘greenhouse effect’ in 1824. And in 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius concluded that industrial-age coal burning will worsen the effect. ‘Global warming’ started appearing in scientific literature in the 1970s. Then in 1988, the climate crisis ‘became a national issue’ when Dr. James Hansen, the then-director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, announced the ‘cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming’.
“In my opinion, the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now,” he said.
So why is humankind only just starting to address it?
Schools were teaching students about global warming – referring to the Earth’s rising surface temperature, one of the symptoms of the climate emergency – 10 years ago. We were taught to turn the taps off when brushing your teeth, have four-minute showers, and try to walk or cycle rather than drive.
And some people listened, and some didn’t mind, brushing it off as another fad. Plastic bags and straws began to be discouraged, too (or banned in some supermarkets, restaurants, and entire cities).
But still, the reality of our planet’s deteriorating state wasn’t sinking in. Too often, when cities hit new records for coldest winters or most snowfall yet, people would joke: “What happened to ‘global warming’? I thought the Earth was meant to be getting hotter.”
So the term ‘climate change’ became more popular. It better reflects the complexities of the issue – which is not just warming, but so much more. And in recent years, many publications, activists, and politicians began referring to it as the climate crisis – an environmental emergency that required immediate action.
Climate emergency in the UK
Last year, the UK experienced ‘historical’ climate variables, according to a report from the Met Office and climate scientists.
The report found that 2020 was the third warmest, fifth wettest, and eighth sunniest on record for the UK. In no other year has the UK ever landed in the top 10 for all three variables, showed data spanning back more than a century.
Moreover, the most recent decade (2011 to 2020) has been, on average, 0.5°C warmer than the 1981 to 2010 average. It’s also been 1.1°C warmer than 1961 to 1990. And 2020 was one of the least snowy years on record.
Many residents of the UK don’t need data to convince them. Earlier this month, the UK experienced an unprecedented heatwave, recording two of its hottest days. Shortly after, heavy rainfall and flash flooding affected London and areas in the south.
Reports from earlier this week predicted that Britain will soon experience its first 40°C day within a decade.
Chloe Brimicombe is a heatwave hazards researcher at the University of Reading. They told the Sunday Times : “Southern England could see its first 40-degree day within the next ten years.
“Most of our rail network would not be able to run in those sorts of temperatures. We would see increased pressure on water resources, productivity would be reduced, and it could affect our livestock and our crops.”
In fact, ongoing extreme temperatures could prove to be deadly.
Last summer’s three heatwaves killed 2,556 people in England, according to Public Health England. Around 2,244 of them were over 65.
“The reality is that we are not set up for it in this country,” said Bob Ward, Policy Director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics.
“Other hotter countries do not see the same mortality that we do. But this is going to become more frequent and we need to start to prepare. At 40C even healthy people will not survive.”
What can individuals do to help stop the climate crisis?
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has committed to getting the UK to carbon neutrality by 2050, pumping £12 billion into the goal.
But many people are eager to do their part, too. So much so that the term ‘climate anxiety’ is now becoming widely reported and explored within mental health fields. Surveys by Cardiff University’s school of psychology found that 40 percent of those polled in the UK are ‘very or extremely worried’ about the climate crisis.
So what, if anything, can we do to help?
Imperial College London compiled a list of nine things individuals can do. They include: cut back on flying, drive less, reduce energy use (like lighting and heating), protect green spaces, invest money responsibly, avoid single-use items and fast fashion, and speak out about the issue.
The last suggestion can have an especially profound result. Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, maintains that it only takes around 3.5 percent of the population to actively participate in protests to attain serious political change.
The other suggestion? Rethink what is on our plates.
Climate breakdown and diet
In 2019, researchers from Oxford University conducted the most comprehensive analysis of farming’s impact on the planet to date. Joseph Poore, who led the study, concluded: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.”
“It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, since these avenues mostly target greenhouse gas emissions.
“Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems. Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this.”
Earlier this month, it was reported that for the first time, the Amazon rainforest is making the climate crisis worse. The world’s largest rainforest used to be a carbon sink. A carbon sink stores some carbon-containing chemical compound for an indefinite period. This lowers the concentration of CO₂ in the atmosphere.
But now, the Amazon is expelling a billion tons of carbon dioxide a year.
A great deal of these emissions are linked to fires in the rainforest. The fires are lit intentionally to clear land for animal agriculture. Namely, to raise livestock for beef, and to grow soy. But a significant amount of soy circulates back into the meat industry. According to WWF, nearly 80 percent of the world’s soy crop is fed to livestock.
These concepts all sound very broad, could one person opting for a plant-based meal rather than a steak actually make a difference? Evidence suggests yes.
Imperial College London highlighted that the carbon footprint of one cheeseburger is equates to the footprint of nine falafel and pittas, or six fish and chips.
Poore’s study also compared total emissions per kilogram of food product. Though CO2 is arguably the most talked about greenhouse gas, it’s not the only one. Agriculture also produces large amounts of methane and nitrous oxide. Poore’s study looked at all emissions linked to food production – this is expressed as CO2-equivalents.
Researchers discovered that producing a kilogram of beef emits 60kg of CO2-equivalents, whereas peas emits just 1 kilogram per kg.
Lamb and cheese emit more than 20kg, whilst poultry and pork emit 6kg and 7kg CO2-equivalents respectively.
Vegan food produces noticeably fewer emissions. These include bananas (0.7kg), soy milk (0.9kg), apples (0.4kg), tomatoes (1.4kg), rice (4kg), and root vegetables (0.4kg). Nuts emit 0.3kg, but have a negative land use because nut trees store carbon.
One of the world’s most talked about environmentalists, 18-year-old vegan Greta Thunberg, may have summed it up best.
She said: “I have learned you are never too small to make a difference.”
“Together and united, we are unstoppable.”