global newspapres

Media reaction: The 2018 summer heatwaves and climate change

This year’s northern-hemisphere summer has seen a succession of heatwaves take hold in Europe, Asia, North America and northern Africa

— From heatwave deaths in Japan, Algeria and Canada, to wildfires in Sweden, Greece and California, the extended spells of hot, dry weather have become frontpage news around the world.

global newspapres
Collage of global newspaper front pages covering the 2018 summer heatwave

 

Carbon Brief looks back at how the media has reported the extreme weather and how the coverage has – or has not – referenced climate change.

The summary below is split into five sections:

  • Roundup of the recent spate of extremes.
  • How the media has reported the UK’s heatwave.
  • How it has covered other extreme events across the northern hemisphere.
  • Notable mentions – and omissions – of climate change.
  • Summary of the comment and opinion articles.
Extreme heat

Heatwave media coverage began towards the end of June – when summer temperatures started to soar across, among other places, the UK and central Europe, parts of North America, including the US East Coast and Canada, and East Asia, such as Japan.

(Some parts of South Asia, including Pakistan and northern India, had previously experienced record-breaking heatwaves throughout April, May and early June.)

Temperatures exceeded 30°C across much of the UK and central Europe towards the end of the month, Al Jazeera reported – and parts of southern England faced their “driest June since 1925”, noted the Daily Telegraph.

The hot and dry conditions fanned the flames of “unprecedented” wildfires across central Portugal, where at least 64 people were killed, and Saddleworth Moor in the north of England, which forced hundreds to flee their homes, according to BBC News.

Around the same time, Quriyat, a city in Oman, experienced a 24-hour period where temperatures did not drop below 42.6°C – breaking the record for the highest “minimum” temperature ever felt on Earth, according to the Washington Post.

Episodes of record-breaking heat continued into early July – when all-time temperature highs were experienced in Denver (40.5°C), Chino in California (48.9°C), Montreal (36.6°C), Belfast (29.5°C), Glasgow (31.9°C) and Yerevan in Armenia (42°C), according to MailOnline. Northern Siberia in the Russian Arctic also experienced “anomalously high temperatures” more than 20°C warmer than usual.

On 5 July, a weather station at Ouargla in the Algerian Sahara recorded a maximum temperature of 51.3°C, reported the Guardian. This could be the highest ever recorded in Africa, said BBC News, as there are doubts about the credibility of the existing record of 55°C, measured in Kebili, Tunisia, in 1931.

The National Post, an English-language Canadian newspaper, reported that up to 89 people from Quebec died from “heat-related complications” between 30 June and 7 July. In Los Angeles, the increased temperatures prompted an “unprecedented” surge in air conditioner usage – which subsequently led to power outages affecting 34,500 people, CNN reported.

On July 17, many UK publications reported on the announcement of a hosepipe ban – which will affect millions in northeastern England from 5 August. The ban aims to “safeguard existing supplies” as rainfall continues to be minimal or completely absent across much of the country, officials told BBC News.

Meanwhile, Sweden raised the alarm after 11 separate wildfires broke out inside the country’s Arctic circle, the Guardian reported. The fires were sparked from a number of sources (including barbecues, cigarettes and lightning), the Guardian noted, but were able to spread quickly in the hot dry conditions.

On July 20, the Met Office confirmed that the UK is experiencing its driest start to summer since records began in 1961, according to BBC News. Only 50.8mm of rain fell from 1 June to 19 July, according to Met Office officials. (The previous record of 58mm over the same period was set in 2013.)

Temperatures continued to soar over the weekend and into the beginning of this week. On Monday (23 July), Japan reported its highest temperature ever recorded as Kumagaya, a city 40 miles from Tokyo, reached 41.1°C, according to the Japan Times.

The paper reported that at least 77 people died in the heat from July 9-22, while 30,000 sought hospital treatment. In South Korea, at least 10 people died from heat-related illnesses, according to the Straits Times, an English-language newspaper based in Singapore.

On the same day, the Met Office issued an amber health warning urging people in southern England to “stay out of the sun” around midday, BBC News reported, as England experienced its hottest day of the year so far. The Daily Mail carried the news on its frontpage with the headline: “Tourism chiefs’ fury at summer killjoys.”

By Monday evening, news had broken that wildfires were quickly spreading across the Attica region of Greece.

The Financial Times later reported that the fires killed at least 81 people, injured at least 187 and forced thousands more to flea to nearby beaches and into the sea. The flames, which may have been started by arsonists, an official told BBC News, had been fanned in the region by strong winds.

The chances of wildfire were also heightened by high temperatures, which have exceeded 40°C in some Greek regions this year, and “an unusually dry winter” which left vegetation dried out, a second story in the Guardian reported.

By Thursday 26 July, at least 60 “uncontained large fires” had broken out across the US, Think Progress reported. MailOnline reported that Yosemite National Park had to be evacuated as firefighters attempted to control a large fire to the west of the park. Many of the blazes across the west of the country are being driven by hot dry weather and high winds, according to Reuters.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, the Met Office warned that temperatures in southeastern England could reach a new high of 37°C on Friday.

Hot takes on the UK’s hot weather

With such an abundance of record-breaking extremes across the northern hemisphere, much of the media has been quick to ponder the reasons behind the prolonged spell of very hot and dry weather.

In the UK, many media reports focused on the position of the jet stream. On Monday’s BBC News at Ten, the BBC’s science editor David Shukman explained:

“The key, as ever, is the jet stream – that’s the flow of high-altitude air that governs our weather. Often in summer, it has a rather gentle wave, meaning we tend to get cooler conditions. But this year, it’s been meandering in great loops, and we [the UK] have ended up to the south of it, which means we’re getting hotter weather.”

In the Sun’s words, when the jet stream is north of the UK, “this creates the conditions for high pressure to develop – and that means hot and dry weather”.

Speaking to the Observer, Dr Dann Mitchell from the University of Bristol explained that the position of the jet stream has allowed the hot conditions to persist:

“The jet stream we are currently experiencing is extremely weak and, as a result, areas of atmospheric high pressure are lingering for long periods over the same place.”

The northerly position of the jet stream is, in part, driven by sea surface temperature patterns in the North Atlantic, explained Prof Stephen Belcher, the UK Met Office’s chief scientist, on the BBC’s Newsnight on Tuesday evening. These look “strikingly similar” to the patterns in the summer of 1976, said Belcher, which is still the UK’s hottest summer on record.

However, “what we didn’t see in 1976 was this band of heatwaves right around the northern hemisphere,” added Belcher.

 

This is reflected in a pair of maps, shown below, that compare global surface temperatures in June 1976 with June 2018 (against a baseline of 1951-80; note the slightly different colour scales).

The maps – originally tweeted by Simon Lee, a PhD student in meteorology at the University of Reading – were subsequently shared more than 10,000 times on social media and featured in news stories published by the Metro, Express, Daily Mail, Mirror and Independent.

Rising global average temperatures mean when these weather patterns do occur, they are more likely to bring very hot conditions, noted Belcher:

“Since 1976, the global mean temperature has risen by more than half a degree [Celsius], so any extremes we get are superimposed upon that warming. So it makes it more likely that these extreme events are going to give us higher temperatures.”

This point has been echoed throughout media reports in recent days by other scientists. Speaking to the Guardian, Prof Myles Allen from the University of Oxford said that “there’s no question human influence on climate is playing a huge role in this heatwave”.

In the same article, Prof Peter Stott, who leads the climate monitoring and attribution team at the Met Office Hadley Centre, pointed out that human-caused warming since the pre-industrial times “is increasing quite significantly the risk of such a heatwave”:

“The temperatures of 30°C and above this week have gone from being a very rare occurrence to, not a frequent occurrence, but much more likely.”

Stott was also interviewed on the BBC’s News at Ten, where he pointed out that recent temperatures “could potentially become the norm in only 30 years time or so if we continue emitting greenhouse gases”. He added:

“It’s important to say also that the trajectory of future climate depends very much on whether mankind continues to increase emissions or whether it is possible to reduce those emissions.”

Speaking to the Press Association, Prof Len Shaffrey of the University of Reading said the heatwave was down to a “combination of North Atlantic Ocean temperatures, climate change and the weather”:

“Global temperatures are increasing due to climate change…The global rise in temperatures means the probability that an extreme heatwave will occur is also increasing.”

Shaffrey’s quotes have been reproduced in numerous outlets, including the Sun, the Independent and the Daily Mail – although the Mail’s print version did not include the part that said “global temperatures are increasing due to climate change”.

Shaffrey also has a guest article in the Conversation about the “three (and a half) reasons why it has been so hot and dry in the UK and Ireland”.

Media reports of the heatwave in the UK have overlapped with broad coverage of a new report from MPs that warns that heat-related deaths in the UK could triple by 2050 as global temperatures continue to rise. The report, published on 26 July by the Environmental Audit Committee, says the UK government is not doing enough to improve resilience to heatwaves. Carbon Brief has all the details within a wider piece about how the UK is planning to adapt to climate change.

Wider world

The weak jet stream has also been linked to the extreme heat elsewhere in Europe, as well as in Canada and southern California.

Ben Rich, a BBC meteorologist, said the “jet stream has shifted further north than usual, allowing a plume of very warm air to waft northwards across the USA and into large parts of Canada”. Combined with a lack of rain, this had allowed temperatures to “rise well above average”, he told BBC News.

Scientific American looked in detail at why hot and humid conditions in southern California had arrived in July, rather than their usual month of September. This was down to a “high-pressure system parked over North America that gradually bled westward”, it said.

A Guardian editorial also linked the “completely unprecedented heatwave” in Siberia to the jet stream:

“What seems to be happening at the moment is that a fixation of the jet stream has produced the heatwave in Siberia as well as ours here.”

Warming of the Arctic coastline will have “consequences that are unpredictable in detail, but surely bad on a large scale”, the Guardian warned. A more frequent weakening of the jet stream has been linked to the rapid pace of warming in the Arctic, meaning “heatwaves are prolonged and so are cold snaps”.

This point was also made by Prof Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University in her interview in the New Scientist:

“Heatwaves over northern hemisphere continents in recent years fit the hypothesis that rapid Arctic warming is playing a role.”

Elsewhere, InsideClimate News reported that the high number of excess deaths linked to the Quebec heatwave could be down to high nighttime temperatures, which are rising even faster than daytime temperatures:

“When temperatures fail to drop at night – when the overnight lows are too high – the heat can become deadly, especially for the elderly and children.”

Hot nights are also especially important for wildfires, the report noted.

“Firefighters historically have counted on lower temperatures and higher humidity at night to bring ‘recovery’ periods that help them tamp down blazes, but that’s been changing. Hot air holds more moisture, meaning lower relative humidity, so fires can continue to rage through the night.”

In Greece, the wildfires were prefaced by “an unusually dry winter”, reported the Guardian. The lack of rainfall, combined with “temperatures topping 40°C hit some areas during this summer’s heatwave”, laid the foundations for wildfires. “Strong winds then fanned the flames and spread the fires widely” allowing the fires to take hold before firefighters could get them under control, noted the Guardian. Police are now investigating whether arsonists started any of the fires.

The New York Times spoke to climate scientist Dr Friederike Otto, the deputy director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, about how rising global temperatures have been affecting the Mediterranean region. “In the Mediterranean we also see a drying effect: If you have a drier soil, it heats up more quickly,” she said.

The Daily Telegraph reported that the number of wildfires hitting Europe this year has been 43% higher than the average for the last 10 years. Figures from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) show that increase has been driven by high rates of wildfires in central and northern European countries – for example, both the UK and Sweden have seen 57 more wildfires than average.

Writing in the Scotsman, Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, noted that recent research has shown that the frequency and severity of drought conditions have increased in southern and eastern Europe in summer and autumn since 1950.

And in a piece in the Conversation, climate scientists Dr Andrew King and Dr Ben Henley from the University of Melbourne write that “heat extremes similar to those witnessed over the past month or two are expected to become more common as global temperatures continue to climb”.

(King recently co-authored a Carbon Brief guest article on how more than 100 million Europeans will typically see summer heat that exceeds anything in the 1950-2017 observed record every other year under 1.5°C of warming – or in two of every three years under 2°C.)

Speaking during the wildfires on Saddleworth Moor in northern England in late June, Prof Guillermo Rein, a professor of fire science at Imperial College London, told the Guardian that recent research showed “climate change is expected to increase the fire frequency and severity of wildfire in Europe”. While Dr Fabrizio Manco of Anglia Ruskin University wrote in the Conversation that such fires are “becoming more common and one of the reasons for this is climate change”.

Interviewed by CNN, Dr Katharine Hayhoe from Texas Tech University pointed out that the catalogue of extreme weather events recorded over the northern hemisphere in recent weeks shows that climate change is already here “and this is what it looks like”:

“Cold and hot, wet and dry – we experience natural weather conditions all the time – but today, climate change is loading the dice against us, making certain types of extremes, such as heatwaves and heavy rain events, much more frequent and more intense than they used to be.”

And quoted in the Independent, Prof Rowan Sutton – director of climate research at the UK National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading – pointed out that “no one should be in the slightest surprised that we’re seeing very serious heatwaves and associated impacts in many parts of the world”. He added:

“An increase in the frequency and severity of heatwaves has been a robust prediction of climate change science for decades.”

Missing link

However, not all media outlets made the connection to climate change.

On 5 July, for example, the UK’s Times newspaper reported that “meteorologists attribute the northern hemisphere heatwave to a weather pattern known as El Niño”. Yet, as Carbon Brief’s US analyst Zeke Hausfather pointed out, the El Niño climate phenomenon has largely been in a “neutral” (or even negative) phase for most of the year – and only a modest positive phase is expected to emerge later in 2018.

In an editorial a few days later, the Times said that “doomsters” will argue the conditions are “just a harbinger of the baking heat and natural disasters that climate change will bring” and again pointed the finger at El Niño, saying that “El Niño will lead to drought and hosepipe bans as soon as our gardens reach full bloom”.

electronic screen showing japan’s temperatures
Tokyo, Japan. 20th July, 2018. Pedestrians walk past an electronic screen showing Japan’s temperatures, during a heatwave that is expected to last at least until the end of the month. Credit: Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Alamy Live News.

 

This was in stark contrast to the Irish edition of the Times, which wrote in an editorial on 2 July that the increased frequency of extreme weather events “suggests that we are already experiencing the direct impact of global warming”.

The Daily Telegraph claimed that scientists were “split on whether climate change is the main cause of the summer heatwaves”. The article featured Prof Peter Stott saying that “climate change models had predicted an increased frequency of heatwaves and the these models are being borne out this summer”. Yet it also quotes Prof Sir Brian Hoskins from the University of Reading and Imperial College London, who said that average temperatures in the northern hemisphere are “not out of step with recent years”:

“We have seen sustained warm and dry patterns. What we don’t understand at the moment is whether climate change makes these patterns more likely”.

Several outlets pointed out that attributing a single extreme event to climate change is less than straightforward. iNews said that it was “difficult to say whether the current hot weather is down to climate change”, while both the Mail Online and Wired quoted Prof Edward Hanna from the University of Lincoln, who cautioned that:

“You just can’t link individual events to climate change. There’s a lot of natural variability [in weather] and we’re talking about seasonal changes which are always variable to some degree.”

In Canada’s Globe and Mail, Dr Blair Feltmate of the University of Waterloo pointed out that suggesting Canada’s heatwave and climate change are not linked “would be like arguing that no particular home run can be attributed to steroids when a baseball player on a hitting streak is caught doping”.

In BusinessGreen, its editor James Murray railed against the media’s tendency to “either exclude climate change from reporting on extreme heat altogether or its insistence on dowsing its coverage in a surfeit of caution about the potential relationship with climate change”.

“The simple fact is the mainstream media does not apply such high standards of precise attribution to any other phenomena that I can think of.”

(Dr Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has a Twitter thread on how “real time attribution of increasing heat waves to human climate change is solid. This has been predicted, and predictions are playing out”.)

Writing for Channel NewsAsia, Dr Kumuda Simpson, a lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University in Australia, commented that “climate change is only occasionally mentioned, and often just in passing” in media coverage of weather extremes. The debate about whether a particular event “was directly and indisputably caused by the warming planet is counterproductive”, she argued:

“Instead, it is imperative that we shift the conversation away from a debate about climate change that all too often becomes politicised either though omission or oversimplification. We must focus on what these events can teach us about the kinds of climate-related risks we face in the near future, and how unprepared we are for them.”

Opinion and comment

The record-breaking heat has sparked fresh debate and discussion on a broad range of topics related to climate change over the past few weeks.

Writing in the Guardian on 6 July, Prof Simon Lewis, a researcher from the University of Leeds and University College London and contributing editor at Carbon Brief, said that the UK heatwave was a harbinger of the country’s future under climate change. He says:

“Climate change is a greater threat to the UK than EU directives, terrorism or a foreign power invading. Instead of this blinkered view where the future is the same as the past, we need to step out of the intense heat and take a cool look at what we are doing to our home planet.”

Irish Times writer Conor Murphy echoed Lewis’s words, arguing that the record-breaking heat “reveals vulnerabilities [Ireland] should not ignore”.

Other opinion articles contemplated whether the UK heatwave would convince people to “wake up” to the scientific consensus on climate change.

Writing in the Guardian, environmental journalist and author Michael McCarthy considered whether a new temperature record would have an impact on public concerns surrounding climate change. “I hoped 2003’s record heatwave would make people more aware. Yet they promptly forgot all about it,” he wrote.

In a column for iNews, Stefano Hatfield suggested that the heat could have the opposite effect – leading to more people burying their heads in the sand in panic. He asks: “Perhaps we simply don’t want to believe we have abused our own planet?”

A second opinion piece in the Guardian, written by columnist Ian Jack on 16 July, said that, while previous long summers in the UK and Ireland brought joy, this year’s feels “ominous”. He added:

“Ireland, for instance, has a rural economy that largely depends on grass, and in a drought grass fails to thrive. That has huge consequences for every cattle farmer, but posterity may see it as no more than a little local difficulty, one of the negligible effects of a global temperature change that melts glaciers and ice caps.”

Simon Kelner, former editor of the Independent, echoed Jack’s words in an article titled: “This heatwave is nothing like the one in 1976. For a start, we’re not celebrating it.” (The UK 1976 heatwave ran from mid-June to the end of August and included 15 consecutive days where temperatures exceeded 32°C in the country.)

“In 40 years or so, will we be talking about the summer of 2018? Possibly not, because by that time we may have dozens just like it.”

A third article comparing this year’s heatwave to that of 1976 notes that, in both years, the country faced “huge political upheaval”. In the Guardian, features writer Andy Beckett noted

“Once the summer interlude of 1976 was over, Britain changed very fast – and in many ways not for the good. Perhaps that’s something for Theresa May, and the rest of us, to ponder while we enjoy the sun.”

Writing for the Evening Standard, columnist and critic Nick Curtis lambasted “millennials” for “moaning about the temperature”. He said:

“I remember the long, hot British summer of 1976 – well, I half-remember it, I was 10 at the time – and let me tell you, this warm snap is NOTHING.”

On July 26, the Daily Mirror ran an editorial arguing that the UK “must prepare for the consequences of climate change. Or, better still, tackle it.”

The editorial was reacting to a new report (see above) from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) which warned that the UK was “woefully” underprepared to deal with heatwaves and other forms of extreme weather. (Carbon Brief has published a detailed look at the report’s findings.)

Meanwhile, columnist Rod Liddle criticised the “tiresome drongos” at the Met Office – who put out an amber alert for high temperatures this week – in an opinion piece for the Sun. He says:

“Give it a rest. I think there is something to global warming. I am not a denier. But I remember the last few ­summers we’ve had – rainy and cool – and the climate change monkeys saying THAT was a consequence of global ­warming, too. You can’t have it both ways.”

However, research published in Nature Climate Change has found that climate change could significantly increase the chances of summer downpours in the UK.

Using modelling, the researchers found that global warming could cause UK summers to become drier overall, but punctuated by more extreme downpours as a result of convective storms. These kind of downpours can lead to dangerous flash flooding.

On a similar note, Christopher Booker in the Daily Mail argued that “this kind of summer heat is far from unprecedented”.

In a prominently positioned opinion article, Booker claimed that “we shall continue to have abnormally hot summers from time to time, just as we did in 1976 and 1846, way back before global warming was invented”.

Reacting to the column, Dr Gareth Jones, an attribution scientist at the Met Office, criticised Booker’s referencing of just the Central England Temperature (CET) record instead of the nationwide UK record.


by Daisy Dunne, Robert McSweeney | The Carbon Brief