“The runway has melted,” a leading British news outlet announced earlier this week. Elsewhere, a French official from the region of Bordeaux wines was describing the wildfires: "It's a monster like an octopus, and it's growing and growing and growing."
Alarmist headline writers are having a ball right now, I thought. The same thing happening in any other part of the world wouldn't be in the headlines across the globe. I stepped away from weather forecast graphics pulsating with a lot of red and orange. However, it was impossible to dismiss the heat wave as insignificant. There have been tragic outcomes, especially in Portugal, where about 1,000 heat-wave-related deaths have been recorded, and in Spain, where the toll is at 679.
The Global North has a much bigger share of historical carbon emissions, and climate justice requires the countries to make more considerable efforts. But they don't.
Meanwhile, other countries are not exactly keen to make drastic sacrifices so that European and other wealthy nations can maintain their extravagant lifestyles. We are in a deadlock.
Since #EuropeHeatWave was trending, “we must act now” experts were busy saving the planet on social media. But it's a bit late “now”.
"We” could have done something if climate action hadn't always been about “you, not me”.
The last surviving humans on Earth will probably sum up the story for their children this way: "We were constantly asking each other to make the first move."
It Pays to Be 'Rich'
Last month, I was in Sevilla when the first heat wave hit the south of Spain. It was the earliest heat wave since 1981. Europeans will be gearing for hotter summers in the years to come as it's an emerging "heat wave hotspot" now, according to a report released earlier this month. On Tuesday, the second hottest day in Paris in the last 150 years (the last one was in 2019), I went offline to focus on converting my small pedestal fan into a cooler. I stretched a wet cotton scarf on a small clothes-stand that I placed behind the fan.
Drenching the scarf in cold water every twenty minutes kept the air sufficiently cool. It was “only” 40 degrees celsius. I am from the plains of North India, after all. It would take a lot more to kill me.
Europe isn’t immune to climate-related disasters. However, if you consider climate change a “threat multiplier”, it has a clear advantage. It's better off than poverty-ridden or war-torn countries tackling major infrastructure issues or islands that risk getting submerged by rising sea levels. Will the heat wave force Europeans to make drastic lifestyle changes to save the planet? I am not so sure.
In Paris, when temperatures soar, shops with large surface areas leave their doors open with air conditioners sending draughts of cool air into the streets. This tempts shoppers to walk in. A small French town called Bourg-en-Bresse was lauded for putting a ban on this practice. The fine for rule-breakers is 38 euros. These outlets belong to multinationals making nearly a billion euros per year in France alone.
In 2003, when a record-breaking heat wave hit Europe, I was shifting to Paris. That year, an estimated 30,000 people died, making it one of Europe’s ten deadliest natural disasters for the preceding 100 years. Meteorologists fear that this year could be worse. As I write this, it's raining in Paris, and temperatures have dropped a good 10 degrees.
Spain is still scorching, though. People are taking more precautions. Monitors in public spaces are frantically flashing reminders about steps to prevent heat strokes.
'You, Not Me'
Since #EuropeHeatWave was trending, “we must act now” experts were busy saving the planet on social media. It's a bit late “now”. We have been failing to act for nearly three decades. Climate change hasn't been on pause since. And “we” could do something if climate action hadn't always been about “you, not me”. This has also been the general trend in the discussions between the 190 countries under the UN framework.
I was at the Paris Climate summit in 2015 when a significant shift occurred in how countries would tackle the climate crisis. The Kyoto Protocol (1992), a treaty that required only developed countries to cut emissions, gave way to the Paris Agreement, under which the climate crisis is seen as a “shared problem” and requires all countries to set emission targets.
It was shocking to see how wealthy nations bullied poorer nations during these negotiations.
Countries in the Global North have a much bigger share of historical carbon emissions, and climate justice requires them to make more considerable efforts. Mention this to European citizens, and they will not know what you're talking about.
In fact, images of our cities under smog evoke pity and disapproval in Europe. Few remember that smog in London in the 1950s was killing people.
Wealthy nations have never liked the idea of paying the price of the climate change they were instrumental in causing. They'd rather not assist in climate finance nor share technology for "clean energy" with poorer countries. They've always taken from the rest of the world. Not that there are any miracle solutions for cleaner energy found anywhere yet.
Will Rich Nations Learn Any Lessons? Probably Not
Besides, we are all trapped in capitalism's extractive system – exploiting people and destroying Earth for profit. The wealthiest capitalists are busy making rockets to escape to Mars. If only Mars was liveable and the tickets could become affordable before it's too late.
Back on earth, other countries are not exactly keen to make drastic sacrifices so that European and other wealthy nations can maintain their extravagant lifestyles. We are in a deadlock of sorts.
During the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1992), George HW Bush said, "American lifestyle was non-negotiable." Today, no one would openly say so, but that's what they mean. Rich nations say it to poorer ones. Citizens in privileged areas say it to those in impoverished ones.
The last surviving humans on Earth will probably sum up the story for their children this way: "We were constantly asking each other to make the first move." In the "pehle aap" (after you) of climate action, everyone missed the train.
(Noopur Tiwari is an independent journalist and the founder of the feminist platform “Smashboard”. She tweets @NoopurTiwari. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)