Climate change is already here – we urgently need to act and adapt

This article was published in 2022, in Magazine 156.

Robin Heydon
Robin Heydon

When I wrote this my phone was telling me that it was 40ºC outside. That is hot. No, it was very hot. It was also very dry. The humidity was below 20%, which meant that lots of places just started catching fire. What is most worrying is that this is the future that we are creating.

There is very little doubt about what caused this. Climate change has been increasing the temperatures we experience, not every day, but the hottest days will become hotter. In 2019, the highest temperature ever recorded in the UK was set in Cambridge at 38.7ºC. That was smashed this summer with many places recording temperatures above 40ºC.

The consequences are dramatic. We have had roads buckle and melt, railways closed due to bendy tracks and sagging power lines, and many people suffering trying to keep cool. The electricity grid was struggling to keep the power on, as air conditioning units started struggling to keep shops and offices cool. The fire services were also stretched dealing with the many fires caused by the high temperatures. If there was a day when people should wake up and realize the consequences of burning fossil fuels, Tuesday 19 July 2022 was that day.

Nearly half of all the emissions in this region are caused by people driving fossil-fuelled cars. Of course, if the higher temperatures continue and investment in the railways to adjust to the new extremes doesn’t happen, then this will only get worse. Yes, in some ways it would be better if they were converted to electric cars, but it would be even better still from an environmental point of view to convert them to bicycles and e-bikes.

A cyclist rides along the southern Busway path which is shaded by trees on a hot day
To adapt to a warming world, we’ll need more trees planted in residential areas and alongside cycleways.

What can we do to make changes? Obviously, we can all cycle more instead of driving. We could also plan new developments so that driving is not the easiest choice to get to a supermarket or for dropping the kids off at school. Why does Cambourne have a main road going through the middle past the school on the way to the supermarket? Was it because it was designed to make driving easy? Why does Bar Hill have a main road going around the outside and tree lined foot paths through green spaces going through the middle past the school on the way to the supermarket? Was it because it was designed to make walking easy? Weirdly, the places with the highest levels of cycling in the world, such as Houten, just outside Utrecht, are designed just like Bar Hill but built on the scale of cycling.

We need to invest in solar power so that we can power all the new air-conditioning units that will be installed and used on very sunny days, and build more wind power. We need more energy storage. And the simplest of them all: we need to invest in more energy efficient homes, more insulation, better airtightness, using renewable electricity to heat and cool them.

We need more trees planted in residential areas to provide shade and cool places down. We need more trees planted at the side of cycleways too. We probably need to think of building cold-shelters in every village and town so that people who are struggling with the heat can go to a place that is cool.

We need to stop making it worse by burning fossil fuels, and use energy-efficient forms of transportation to get around, electric trains, electric bicycles, and even the simple bicycles. How long will it be before we hit 45ºC or higher in the UK?

Robin Heydon is Chair of Camcycle. This article was first published on 25 July in the Cambridge News, where you can read his column each week.