London was burning earlier this week. So many blazes erupted during the recent heatwave that the city’s fire brigades had their busiest day since Hitler sent his V-2s screaming across the Channel. The runways at Heathrow began to melt when temperatures crossed 40 degrees Celsius, while embattled railway companies feared that train tracks would buckle in the heat. Britain, like the rest of Europe, is woefully unprepared for a warming world.
Here in New Delhi, it’s barely 30 degrees outside. The monsoon has finally arrived, making this parched part of the world habitable once again.
Nevertheless we, too, have suffered from the heat more than is usual. This is what’s supposed to happen, regular as clockwork: First, heavy rain clouds gather over the Indian Ocean and are pulled up toward the subcontinent as it begins to bake under the hot sun of late April. Then, by the end of May, the clouds burst over the southern tip of the peninsula; less than a fortnight later, on June 10, the great port cities of Mumbai and Kolkata receive their first sustained showers.
The monsoon then proceeds regally up the Gangetic plain until it brings relief to Delhi in the last days of the month. While northwest India may feel unlivable during high summer, summer is only supposed to last two months or so.
Now the monsoon tends to get lost. This year, the heat in central India and then in southern Pakistan was such that it pulled the clouds in that direction instead. Delhi should have seen constant showers for the first 10 days of June. Instead we received just 2.6 millimeters of rain — and this 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 being destroyed by climate change. But at least we in India sense what we are in for. We know what extreme heat can do to a person. In response, you build houses with thick walls, small windows and high ceilings to keep cool. You drink as much water as you can. If at all possible, you don’t go out when the sun is high in the sky. Englishmen, as Noel Coward famously pointed out, don’t have quite the same respect for the midday sun.
There’s a lot about how Europeans live that will have to change as the continent faces summer days that will feel more like South Asia than the Swiss Alps. Clothes, for one. A month with daytime temperatures regularly over 27 degrees Celsius isn’t one in which you should be wearing a nice suit as you walk to the office. The leaders of the G-7 have dispensed with neckties; suit jackets should be next.
People will change their habits when their doctors tell them to — and, fortunately, the National Health Service remains Britain’s most trusted institution. The NHS has guidance out telling Britons to drink more water and to walk in the shade. (And also to “avoid exercising in the hottest parts of the day,” a piece of advice I am dismayed was needed. Perhaps Coward was on to 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 have two or three months of perfect weather to spread diseases such as dengue and chikungunya — which we in India had hardly heard of a few decades ago but which are now endemic. In the United States, the Deep South is in even more danger: The United Nations Environment Programme has warned the region might be at risk of malaria outbreaks in coming decades.
Then there’s the real estate stock. New-build completions in the United Kingdom have only returned about to the level they were before the financial crisis. That in itself is less than half what they were at the peak of British house-building, back in the mid-1960s.
It’s wonderful how many countries in Europe — Britain included — have worked hard to minimize the demolition of old buildings and relax change-of-use regulations to bring them into the housing market. Yet formerly cold-weather countries can’t afford too much sentimentality. With the climate changing, they will need many more new buildings that are designed for extremes of heat, too.
Growing up in Bengal — where, as Coward pointed out, “to move at all is very seldom done” — the cemeteries provided enough evidence of what happens to people who refuse to change their ways when confronted with extreme heat. Graveyards were full of British colonists who died young; more than half of British civil servants passed away during their tour of duty.
One austere Danish visitor explained why: “It is true that many Englishmen die here very suddenly, but in my opinion the fault is chiefly their own: They eat much succulent food. … They drink very strong Portugal wines, at the hottest time of day. … In addition they wear, as in Europe, tight-fitting clothes.”
Harsh and unscientific, yes. But, if Bengal’s heat is coming to Britain, perhaps there are a few lessons to be learned.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• If Climate Is a Crisis, Keep Gas Prices High: Eduardo Porter
• When the Weather Is Hot Enough to Kill: Fickling & Pollard
• Investors Deserve Better Disclosure on Climate: Michelle Leder
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”
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