Hotter than Hades: What to do when climate change catches up with the unwary
Alison Mau is a senior journalist at Stuff , and editor of the #MeTooNZ project. OPINION: First, an apology. People who bang on incessantly about the weather are bores, and this will be my second column about the elements in as many weeks. Its the week for it, though. Climate science has told us for decades we'd be hit by astonishing new weather patterns, leading to extreme temperatures, floods, crop failures, and sea rise, but rarely has the bald evidence been so much in our faces, all at once. Wildfires are raging across much of Europe, parts of London are in flames, and temperatures in the famously temperate United Kingdom are breaking all former records. READ MORE: * A UK meteorologist warned of deadly heat, then he was told to cheer up * Antarctica and the Arctic experiencing record-smashing heatwaves, why is this? * 48.8C: The city in Sicily that may have set Europe's all-time heat record * Places in New Zealand for which 2019 was the warmest year on record Heat can be subjective - what you're used to is what you're used to, and therefore when the weather goes rogue it's a shock, no matter what you know about climate change. I've always suspected it's warmer at any given temperature in Aotearoa than in Melbourne (where I grew up); 25 degrees here can feel like a scorcher, whereas in Melbourne you could still need a cardie. I thought this might just be me, but others who've adopted New Zealand as their home have made the same observation. Theories abound, including the ozone layer, and the lack of air particulates - dust, soot, smoke, which let less sunlight through - meaning while 30 degrees is pleasantly warm elsewhere, mid-20s here can feel like standing directly under a UV lamp. I remember long stretches of post-40-degree summer temperatures in my childhood. In 1970s suburban Melbourne very few houses or businesses were air-conditioned, and nighttime temperatures gave you little if any relief. If you've ever tried to get to sleep when it's still above 30 degrees, you'll know what I mean. We had ways of dealing with this: fans at the end of the bed, windows and curtains closed until well after the sun went down. My go-to method was to soak a beach towel in cold water and lie perfectly still on my back underneath it until the water had mostly evaporated (about an hour) then get up, rinse and repeat. Not hugely effective but it sometimes made the unbearable, slightly less so. What many people unused to very high temperatures don't understand is that you cannot continue to live as normal, in those conditions. When it's 40 or above, the way you interact with the world has to change radically. You have to slow down - the way you walk, talk, work or God forbid, exercise. Life becomes a no-hurry zone by necessity. Those in the UK will be quickly working that out after the scorcher they've had this week. There have been heatwave conditions before, of course. I remember my first summer in London being, by my standards, quite warm: a bit of surprise for a newbie resident who'd been warned English summers were legendarily dire. As a girl who considered anything under 30 degrees to be unworthy of the name summer, I thought it was quite lovely. But around me, all the locals were losing their cool completely. Discussions about the temperature were long-form epic - it was all anyone could talk about as they sucked down an extra pint in the relative cool of the local pub at lunchtime. Soft, I thought. No fortitude. Try spending the wet-season Christmas holidays on a cattle station in the Northern Territory as I did at age 13, and see how you manage. It was only when the London infrastructure began to show levels of stress similar to that of the moaning populace that I realised how badly prepared it, and they, were for hot weather. First, the trains stopped running. Then the power went off to shops and businesses throughout central London. I happened to be in the hairdresser's chair at that moment, and I'll never forget the look on the stylist's face as the roar of the hairdryers faded into silence. Sure enough, the heatwave of 1990 is listed as one of the most severe of recent times, with a top temperature of 37.1 degrees recorded in the city of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire. The heatwave only lasted four days - by August 5 the temperature had dropped to a pleasant 23 degrees - but it felt like longer. This week all former records were blown out of the water by a blast-furnace heatwave. Heat like this can cause heatstroke (headaches, dizziness, confusion, cramps, racing pulse, excessive thirst) and can be fatal. A University of Bristol researcher, Dr Eunice Lo, found thousands of deaths attributable to heat waves in the UK, in the past decade. But little has been done to protect people from these risks. Despite having the capacity to do so, governments have failed to address "health risks from overheating in buildings, and homes in particular" the UK Climate Change Commission's five-yearly assessment stated in 2021. Instead, UK residents are left to search the internet for listicles on "how to keep cool in 40 degrees". One article I read blamed the media along with politicians for not being clear enough about the new climate reality, and said we should start naming heatwaves in the way we name hurricanes and cyclones. An interesting suggestion and a branding gimmick, perhaps. But it might help us understand that, as with other forms of extreme weather, it's a folly to try to live and work as you normally would when the temperature reaches the danger zone.