“Heatwave leaves dehydrated Shropshire hedgehogs fighting for their lives.”
It was an unusual headline but one that was hardly surprising given the blistering heat experienced in the UK this summer. 2018 delivered the driest June the country has ever experienced. By the end of July, Britain was shaping up for its hottest summer on record. Uncharacteristically brown lawns were revealing the outlines of previous land uses hidden beneath rural England’s normally lush grass. The British flocked to their beaches where they sweltered in burning throngs, offering a sight that normally requires a budget flight to southern Spain or North Africa.
The hedgehogs suffered badly. Not only were their usual sources of water unavailable but the hard ground made it impossible for these lovable critters to dig for the worms and grubs that make up their diet. Emaciated and dehydrated hedgehogs languished across the English countryside. The wildlife-loving public did what they could to help. One rescue center in the Midlands took in more than 800 hedgehogs in a single month.
A tabloid newspaper declared “Next time you find yourself complaining about the heatwave blasting Britain, just be grateful that you’re not a hedgehog.”
The heat across the world this summer also drew attention to the plight of a different organism finding itself forced to crisscross a sun-scorched landscape at the peak of day. UPS drivers have petitioned the company to install air conditioners in their iconic brown trucks. Spending a long day running around on blacktop behind a big sheet of glass and an internal combustion engine is not a good way to stay cool. One comment submitted to the petition for A/C units declared “You cannot even leave you pet in a hot car, why would you make a person work in a hot UPS truck?”
The death in June of a US postal worker found unresponsive in her truck in southern California as temperatures hovered around 120 degrees brought home the tragic way in which outdoor work is becoming increasingly hazardous as the world warms. According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, the number of daily record lows has been declining over the last forty years in the U.S. while the number of record highs has been increasing. Heatwaves are expanding. Here in Missoula, Montana we just experienced the longest period without rain on record. Average summer temperatures are predicted to go up more than five degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of the US by late-century (compared to twentieth century levels) should emissions stay on their current upward trajectory.
In the relatively wealthy US, the social cost of all this additional heat will not be felt as acutely as in many poorer countries. India is already bearing a significant human and economic burden from increased heat. The inability to work outdoors during summer extremes exacerbates the poverty and susceptibility to illness of the country’s poorest. By the end of the twenty-first century, heat and humidity during summer heatwaves could turn significant parts of South Asia and the Persian Gulf into places where humans cannot safely work outside. One and a half billion of some of the world’s poorest people will be exposed to this looming public health crisis.
Even developed and more temperate parts of the world will not be spared. Europe’s 2003 heatwave is believed to have caused 70,000 deaths. Almost 20,000 of these deaths occurred in France, many of them amongst the elderly and the more vulnerable sectors of society.
It is becoming increasingly common to write about how climate change is no longer simply a future threat but is here with us now. I have written on this blog about the emotional cost of the changing world we already see. The summer of 2018 can only have notched upwards the number of people who now appreciate how serious the harms of climate change will be.
Talking about hedgehogs may be a strange way to deliver a sober message. The point is, however, that there are a million ways to enter into this story. Take your pick. It all points in the same direction and it is all grim.
This summer in the UK it was hedgehogs at the sharp end of the unfolding crisis. Elsewhere it was outdoor workers, the elderly, and the infirm. The circle of the impacted will continue to widen. There is plenty more of this to come and it is not easy to be positive about it.
To paraphrase how a French newspaper captured a previous global tragedy…“Nous sommes tous hérissons.”
This is the increasingly sad truth of our time.
Hedgehog photo by Tim Watts