But it remains an open question whether extreme weather events like this month’s heat wave and fires will change that mind-set.
“For Germany, I think last year’s floods were a bit of a wake-up call, insofar as, ‘Oh, weather can actually be deadly in Germany,’” Otto said. But she expressed skepticism that the heat wave would have a similar effect. “People don’t die dropping dead in the street in heat waves. People die quietly, in their poorly insulated homes.” And, she noted, those who do tend to be older adults and the poor and sick — groups for whom the impact of heat can be easier to dismiss. “It’s the same people who already die of air pollution, and nobody cares,” she said.
Anna Walnycki, a researcher on adaptation to climate change at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, was more hopeful about extreme weather’s ability to draw attention to the immediate human cost of climate change.
“These few days have actually allowed people to see, you know, their gran suffering in the heat, the N.H.S. is actually buckling under the strain of heat,” she said, referring to Britain’s National Health Service. By shifting away from abstract discussions of net carbon emissions toward local impacts with “a human face,” she added, the heat wave could make a difference to public perceptions of how much countries like Britain stand to lose from a changing climate — and how quickly that might occur.
It is true, of course, that poorer countries in the Global South, and the poorest people within them, will bear the brunt of climate change. In May, I was in India toward the end of its own record-breaking heat wave, when temperatures climbed far higher than in Europe. The effect on people’s livelihoods and survival was far more extreme than anything happening here.
And even within the same city, temperatures can discriminate between rich and poor: Walnycki, whose research focuses primarily on Latin America and Africa, told me that poorer neighborhoods and informal settlements can become “heat islands” that reach 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than nearby leafy suburbs because of the warming effect of paved ground, scarce green space and limited shade.