Much of the UK press is breathlessly reporting the nation is set for the ‘hottest summer ever’ with ‘at least five heatwaves’ on the horizon.
News outlets published pictures of bikini-clad beachgoers enjoying the sunshine, and quoted James Madden, forecaster for Exacta Weather, who said: “The overall summer forecast is now pointing towards at least four or five major heatwaves.”
The Met Office’s three-month weather outlook is more conservative, with forecasters predicting a “40% chance” this summer “will be significantly hotter than average” and just a 10% probability that temperatures will be cooler.
But what many of these joyful news reports fail to mention is that these heatwaves are a direct result of climate change – and could cause sickness and death.
Dr Saffron O’Neill of Exeter University led a study into the way extreme weather events are reported in France, Germany, the Netherlands and UK, particularly the use of pictures.
She says heatwaves are framed as ‘fun in the sun’ with photographs of people on the beach or by water, but even when images did depict the danger of heat extremes, the vulnerable people most at risk – such as children and the elderly – were largely absent.
“It makes the climate crisis seem like a distant risk,” she told the Independent. “And it makes people less concerned.”
“We were quite surprised to find such a dissonance between text and images. We saw captions and headlines about the risks to vulnerable people and even deaths next to pictures of people flicking their hair in a city fountain.
“We don’t represent Covid deaths using pictures of people in lockdown enjoying a beer in the garden.”
The study, which Dr O’Neill makes clear is not an attack on the media, concludes with suggestions to diversify the visual discourse on climate change and heatwaves in the news media.
Heatwave expert Professor Hannah Cloke, of the University of Sussex’s Department of Meteorology and Department of Geography and Environmental Science, says the media should be mindful that more hot days also increases the likelihood of heat-related illness, and deaths.
“In recent years, hundreds of people have died, often in cases where vulnerable or unwell people are unable to escape incessant heat for several days and nights,” she told the Independent.
“Media reporting of weather and climate is critical for public understanding of the issues at stake with climate change, and any policies designed to cope with or curb its impacts.
“The media has accepted that it has a responsibility to use information carefully to ensure public safety, for example with guidance around the reporting of or portrayal of mental health and suicide.
“I would argue that individuals and media organisations should consider how they portray information about summer heatwaves in a similar way.
“The portrayal of potentially dangerous heat as an opportunity for pictures of sunbathers or families having fun on the beach entirely distracts from the reality suffered by thousands of people who are facing poor health and death as a result of homes and infrastructure incapable of dealing with hot conditions.”
Grahame Madge, a senior spokesman for the Met Office, says the reason we have seen so many record-breaking summer temperatures is climate change.
He said: “Over the last few years we have seen a number of high temperature records and we would fully expect to see more temperature records being broken in the next few years.
“We have not seen a UK temperature breaching 40C but our forecasters believe that is only a matter of time.
“It’s still possible to get cold extremes, but when you look at new temperature records, nine out of 10 are high temperatures and one in 10 is low. In a non-warming world you would expect it to be 50-50.”
Today a Met Office study warned there is a 50-50 chance that temperatures will temporarily exceed the key 1.5C threshold for global warming in the next five years.
The annual update forecasts that one of the years 2022-2026 is very likely to be the warmest on record globally, beating the current record hot year of 2016.
And it is likely that one of the years in the next half-decade will see annual average temperatures exceed 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the report produced for the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said.
Under the global Paris climate treaty, countries pledged to curb temperature rises to 2C and pursue efforts to limit them to 1.5C above 19th century levels to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change.