The British still think heatwaves are fun — not for much longer

Last month, while on holiday in Sicily, my partner and I were warned by a local that the weather the following week looked bad. Being British, our instinctive response was to inquire whether there were storms coming, but we were quickly corrected: “It will be 35C. Far too hot”, he told us.

Fifty years into a steep upward trend in global temperatures, with big wildfires now an annual occurrence from Australia to California to parts of Europe, most reasonable people now greet the prospect of extreme heat with concern. Even an FT analysis of newspaper stories about heatwaves in the more climate-sceptic US shows that half of them now emphasise the risks to health and life.

But Britain is different. Here, I found that just a third of articles mention the risks, and almost as many focus on basking in the heat, heading to the beach and eating ice-cream. Front pages heralding the next warm spell are invariably accompanied by pictures of frolicking sunbathers, even as the headlines mention health warnings.

Britons’ longstanding love affair with warm weather is understandable. Our climate is notoriously grey and damp, and heatwaves of the past rarely exceeded 30C. But while our excitement about hot spells has not changed, the conditions have. Too few of us realise where we are now, or where we’re heading.

Extreme heat warnings for next week have been labelled by some as examples of a “nanny state”, with comparisons made to the 1976 heatwave where temperatures also pushed into the upper thirties. But this is to miss both the increasing occurrence of such acute high temperatures — and their consequences.

One Met Office study into extreme heat found that the chance of the maximum daily temperature exceeding 35C somewhere in the UK has already increased from once every 15 years in the mid-20th century to once every five years today. By the turn of the next century this will happen every other year, the researchers found, even assuming that global emissions will have halved from their current levels by then. By 2090, UK temperatures will exceed 40C roughly once a decade.

The most obvious consequence is loss of life. During the 1976 heatwave, total deaths in London increased by 30 per cent. The equivalent figure for the UK during the winter 2020-21 Covid wave was 40 per cent. During Europe’s searing summer of 2003, 15,000 French people lost their lives — the same number of deaths as the country’s first Covid wave.

Then there is quality of life. Readers from warmer climes might wonder why 35C is worth making a fuss about, but relative to most countries the UK is unprepared for the pace of the climate transition, with far lower rates of air conditioning installation, unsuitable housing design, and transit systems that become almost unusable during high temperatures. One in four dwellings in England already experiences overheating.

Multiple studies have shown that cognitive function worsens under high temperatures, meaning UK productivity is likely to suffer as hot spells increase in frequency. The association between high temperatures and violence is also well established. In what I consider one of the most ingeniously-designed experimental studies, a pair of researchers from Arizona State University stopped their car at a set of traffic lights, remained stationary when the lights went green, and counted the number of times one of the cars behind them honked their horn. They found that the higher the ambient temperature the more honking, especially when drivers did not have air conditioning inside their vehicle.

And we may think of scorched landscapes as a distant phenomenon, but there has been a recent uptick in wildfires in the UK, with almost 30,000 hectares burnt in 2019. As recently as 2018, plumes of smoke billowed over east London as the London fire brigade tackled the largest grass fire in its history.

This heatwave is a sign of things to come. It is high time we started distinguishing between beach weather and wildfire weather, and began taking the risks of extreme heat much more seriously.

[email protected], @jburnmurdoch

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