Britain is burning. India has some tips.


London was burning earlier this week. So many fires erupted in the recent heatwave that the city’s firefighters had their busiest day since Hitler sent his V-2s howling across the English Channel. Heathrow’s tracks began to melt as temperatures rose above 40 degrees Celsius, as embattled railway companies feared the tracks would warp in the heat. Britain, like the rest of Europe, is unfortunately unprepared for global warming.

Here in New Delhi, it’s barely 30 degrees outside. The monsoon has finally arrived, making this parched part of the world habitable again.

Nevertheless, we too suffered from the heat more than usual. This is what is supposed to happen, like clockwork: First, heavy rain clouds gather over the Indian Ocean and are pulled towards the subcontinent as it begins to bake under the hot late April sun. Then, in late May, clouds broke over the southern tip of the peninsula; less than a fortnight later, on June 10, the major port cities of Mumbai and Kolkata received their first sustained downpours.

The monsoon then sweeps majestically up the Ganges plain until it brings relief to Delhi in the last days of the month. While northwest India may seem unlivable in the height of summer, summer is only supposed to last about two months.

Now the monsoon tends to get lost. This year, the heat in central India and then southern Pakistan has been such that it has pulled the clouds in that direction instead. Delhi should have seen constant downpours for the first 10 days of June. Instead, we received just 2.6 millimeters of rain – and that after a summer when temperatures between 45 and 50 degrees were the norm rather than the exception.

Cherished weather patterns, expectations built up over generations, are all destroyed by climate change. But at least in India we sense what awaits us. We know what extreme heat can do to a person. In response, you build houses with thick walls, small windows, and high ceilings to stay cool. You drink as much water as you can. If possible, don’t go out when the sun is high in the sky. The English, as Noel Coward has pointed out, don’t have quite the same respect for the midday sun.

There are many things about the way Europeans live that will need to change as the continent faces summer days that will look more like South Asia than the Swiss Alps. Clothes, for one. A month with daytime temperatures consistently above 27 degrees Celsius is not a month where you should wear a nice suit when you go to the office. G-7 leaders have given up on ties; suit jackets should be next.

People will change their ways when their doctors tell them to – and thankfully the National Health Service remains Britain’s most trusted institution. The NHS has advised Britons to drink more water and walk in the shade. (And also to “avoid exercising in the hottest parts of the day,” a piece of advice I’m appalled about was needed. Maybe Coward was onto something.)

But the NHS will have to prepare for more than that. Under business-as-usual scenarios, the Aedes aegypti mosquito will migrate unhindered to northern Europe and be given two or three months of perfect weather to spread diseases such as dengue fever and chikungunya – which we in India hardly had. heard of decades ago but are now endemic. In the United States, the Deep South is even more at risk: the United Nations Environment Program has warned that the region could be at risk of epidemics of malaria in the decades to come.

Then there is the housing stock. New build deliveries in the UK have only roughly recovered to pre-financial crisis levels. That in itself is less than half of what they were at the height of British house building in the mid-1960s.

It’s wonderful to see how many countries in Europe – including Britain – have worked hard to minimize the demolition of old buildings and loosen change-of-use regulations to bring them into the housing market. Yet once cold countries cannot afford too much sentimentality. With climate change, they will also need many more new buildings designed for extreme heat.

Growing up in Bengal – where, as Coward pointed out, “moving at all is very rarely done” – cemeteries have provided ample evidence of what happens to people who refuse to change their ways when faced with a extreme heat. The cemeteries were filled with British settlers who died young; more than half of British civil servants died during their period of service.

An austere Danish visitor explained why: “It is true that many English people die here very suddenly, but in my opinion the fault lies mainly with them: they eat a lot of delicious food. … They drink very strong Portuguese wines, at the hottest time of the day. … In addition they wear, like in Europe, tight clothes.

Harsh and unscientific, yes. But, if the Bengal Heat arrives in Britain, there may be some lessons to be learned.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• If the climate is a crisis, keep gas prices high: Eduardo Porter

• When the weather is hot enough to kill: Fickling and Pollard

• Investors deserve better climate information: Michelle Leder

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior researcher at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy”.

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