Do you remember when the weather was a reliable source of innocuous small talk? “Hot today, isn’t it?” you would observe to a colleague as you stood awkwardly in the lift together. They would reply with something about the garden needing rain, then you would go back to ignoring each other. Talking about the weather was uncontroversial. It was safe. It was oddly soothing.
Sadly, there is nothing soothing about the weather any more; every day seems to bring new record-breaking temperatures or extreme conditions. June was the hottest month recorded on Earth; July is on course to break that record. The Arctic is having a sweltering summer that has sparked unprecedented wildfires. According to the World Meteorological Organization, these fires emitted as much carbon dioxide in one month as the whole of Sweden does in a year.
As large sections of the Arctic burn, major cities sizzle. New York, where I live, has just emerged from a heatwave that the mayor declared a “local emergency”. The city’s infrastructure, which is held together by chewing gum and rat droppings at the best of times, buckled under the strain of millions of heaving air conditioners, leaving more than 46,000 New Yorkers without power on Sunday. Now it is Europe’s turn to swelter; the Met Office says temperatures could reach 37C (99F) in London on Thursday.
What makes this extreme weather even more uncomfortable is the grim realisation that we have done this to ourselves. The climate crisis has made heatwaves the new normal. You can’t turn to a colleague and remark: “Hot, isn’t it?” without thinking about the fact that, unless something drastic is done, it is going to get hotter and hotter. According to scientists at the Crowther Lab in Switzerland, nearly 80% of cities will undergo dramatic climate changes by 2050; London, for example, will feel like Barcelona does today. Residents of cities such as Jakarta and Singapore, meanwhile, will experience “unprecedented climate conditions” characterised by extreme rainfall and severe droughts.
As the implications of the climate crisis become impossible to ignore, many of us are growing increasingly terrified. The climate emergency isn’t just damaging the planet; it is also harming our mental health – a phenomenon called “eco-anxiety”. As Alexandria Harris wrote in her 2015 book Weatherland, “small alterations in familiar places can disturb us more than dystopian visions”. I spent every summer of my childhood shivering on damp Cornish beaches and can’t quite wrap my head around England’s heatwaves. I feel a sense of bereavement for an England that seems to be disappearing; on a climate level, the place I grew up in is starting to feel like a different country. Indeed, Harris said in her book that “the years to come … may be the last years of English weather”. Now is the time, she says, to build a “great storehouse” of weather memories.
We are going to need a lot more than a storehouse of memories to weather what is coming, of course. We need to significantly change our behaviour and, even more importantly, overhaul our economic system. After all, only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. But you know all this already; we all do. But our politicians still are not taking meaningful action. Capitalism is carrying on with business as usual. The world is literally on fire – and it feels as though we are fiddling with paper straws while it burns.
•Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist