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I sat on a wet towel, my stepfather sent apocalyptic texts, but our long-term response to the UK’s heatwave must be action | Emma Beddington

A week after The Great British Bake In, it’s 13C and drizzling here: North Yorkshire is (temporarily) healing. I have been giddily sending pictures of pewter skies and cagoule sightings to my sister who, unwisely for a red-headed northerner, lives in steamy Paris. The whole business feels like a collective fever dream, but, of course, it wasn’t: as melted roads and scorched verges, drifts of autumnal leaves and warnings of an imminent drought declaration demonstrate, and as thousands of climate scientists testify hourly with weary urgency.

So, as our brains return to room temperature, it’s time to work out how to respond next time. Nationally, structurally, our lack of preparedness for extreme heat is a disaster in waiting, as more frequently urgent experts keep telling us. But, given the far more pressing business of choosing the ugliest possible font for leadership contest materials, and Dominic Raab explaining we should “enjoy the sunshine” shortly before much of the A2 caught fire, it looks like we’ll be thrown back on our own resources.

I don’t think anyone here quite nailed heatwave strategy this time round, except my husband, who spent it working in a chainsaw distribution center in Belgium. This was an eccentric, but apparently successful approach: his climate-controlled office was icy. “Air conditioning is a maladaptive heat response,” I hissed at him from my own heatwave office (a wet towel on the bathroom floor), listlessness momentarily pierced by bitter envy. The ancient dog repeatedly got into his furry padded envelope bed and had to be physically restrained from coddling himself to death. My best friend posted a very funny Twitter thread on her ancestral Cambodian strategies for heat survival (sample tip: “When you’re too tired to keep doing nothing, take a nap. You can try using a fan if you want, but that will only waft the mosquitoes about, up to you ”) and had the Khmer Rouge explained to her by strangers. Paris sister took the 19th-century aristocrat’s approach and headed to the coast, only to be greeted by record-breaking 40C temperatures there. Checking in on my stepfather, who is also ginger, and in the age bracket where checking in is recommended, I was initially worried: “I’m calling innocent and guilty to repent, for the day is at hand,” he texted, floridly , as if the four horsemen of the Apocalypse were just parking up in the short stay around the corner. By early evening, his angrily eschatological response from him felt entirely appropriate.

My coping mechanism was to become even more obsessed than usual with my local flora and fauna. It was eerie out in the hairdryer heat: lairy local sparrows cowed into silence, the vegetation crispy and shriveled. In the garden, a vast gull wandered, open-beaked and confused, in search of shade (or, knowing gulls, possibly carrion). I topped up birdbaths, put out rehydrated mealworms, chucked washing-up water on plants and distributed bee revival kits to bemused family members. I fretted about the pigeon fledglings in the tree outside my window and tried to persuade everyone to shower standing in a bucket.

I am not virtue signaling my selfless, saintly response: it is my version of climate denial, trying to create a tiny, self-contained corner where I can, as far as possible, pretend disaster is not happening. That is a failure of imagination like any other, really. Faced with the scale of human tragedy from the climate crisis now and the prospect of worse to come, I am trying to persuade two gormless pigeons to take a bath. It’s just fiddling really, while, well, everywhere burns.

The truth, of course, is that even if we mend our Mad Dogs and Englishmen ways, learn to close the curtains, and hydrate, we cannot really cope. “I can’t go through that again,” said my stepfather the next day. “But what’s the alternative?” I asked, “Die?” He said that he was, indeed, his medium-term strategy. For the rest of us, the best and sanest adaptive response is anger, and action. Let’s do it now, while it’s, briefly, cooler.

Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist

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