The extreme heat meant wildfires blazed across the region. Fields of crops went up in smoke. A huge fire broke out in Doncaster and houses were burned to the ground in Barnsley, with people losing everything. Struggling to cope with the ferocity of the fires, South Yorkshire emergency services declared a major incident.
This was not a one-off freak event. The truth is that these dangerous temperatures and the resulting wildfires are down to climate change, caused by human activity. They’re not, I’m afraid, just ‘summer’. While some nostalgically compare it with the hot summers of their past, this is completely different.
It’s global warming. The science is unequivocal. As NASA’s figures show, the last eight years have been the hottest since records began. Even scarier, we are breaking heat records faster than any climate models predicted.
Moreover, temperatures are set to rise even more because of our continued burning of oil and gas, in our cars, boilers and power stations. The greenhouse gases produced from these fossil fuels act like a blanket around our planet, absorbing the sun’s heat. The more we burn, the hotter our planet becomes. There’s every likelihood you’re experiencing one of the coolest summers of the rest of your life.
We cannot undo what we’ve done, but we can change the future. Thankfully, we can stop the worst of this crisis and keep this planet habitable. But we must act fast. The window of opportunity is closing. We are currently on track for a catastrophic three degrees of warming. The impacts we witnessed last week happened at just one degree. We need to rapidly reduce our carbon pollution and adapt our lives to rising temperatures. It’s not about a nanny state or young versus old or left versus right – but keeping people safe.
For a start, we’re going to have to work out how to live with less rain. One reason the wildfires spread so fast is that Yorkshire, following a UK-wide trend, has had below average rainfall this year.
The countryside is especially dry, which is treacherous when temperatures soar. Sparks from machinery, a discarded disposable barbecue or a cigarette butt can quickly create an inferno.
Water pressure and supply are reduced during droughts, making tackling fires even harder.
As our summers become drier and hotter, we need to change our habits. Disposable barbecues and fire lanterns need to be avoided. Cigarette butts should be disposed of properly. And we need to save water.
But we also urgently need the Government to invest more in the fire service. Over a decade of austerity has cut it to the bone. Domestic fires caused by electrical faults or deep fat fryers may have decreased, but callouts due to the climate crisis are rising.
When the Yorkshire wildfires escalated last week, the South Yorkshire fire service was unable to call on neighbouring services for help, as would usually happen, because they were all dealing with similar situations. This is a danger to public safety – and the brave crews sent to put out the blazes.
The extra danger’s not just in the summer months. As the world warms and polar ice melts, sea level rise and super storms are going to mean more flooding and faster coastal erosion.
Yorkshire has already experienced its fair share of both. We can’t keep expecting depleted crews of firefighters to try and deal with these growing problems.
And it’s not just in terms of the fire service that we’re not ready for climate change. Our government is not doing enough in many areas. Last week, as Yorkshire burned and Tory leadership contenders talked about ditching net zero, the Government lost a landmark legal case. The High Court declared its climate strategy ‘unlawful’ because it doesn’t set out a proper plan. Even before that, its own advisers at the Committee on Climate Change issued a damning report on its progress, highlighting ‘major failures in delivery programmes’.
So what can we do? Well, the single biggest thing is ditching fossil fuels and using clean, green energy instead. Both the United Nations and the International Energy Agency have said we need to stop extracting any new oil or gas, as we have enough reserves to use while we transition to renewables.
Of course, this probably feels overwhelming. Believe me, I do understand. But the way to feel hope is to act. You can raise your concerns with your MP or join an environmental group. You can make changes to your life, by driving less, eating more veggie meals and, if you can, insulating your home, which will also cut your energy bills.
The most important thing you can do is talk about your worries with friends and family, because we can’t tackle this crisis until we admit what’s at stake.
Hopefully, these scenes of a fire-ravaged Yorkshire are a wake up call. To ensure they don’t become commonplace, we need to cut our emissions and adapt to rising temperatures. It’s a big challenge.
But, if we all play our part, we can do it.
- Angela Terry is an environmental scientist and founder of One Home, which provides independent advice on reducing carbon footprints.