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Sunny coverage of UK heatwaves forgets risks


The public is being lulled into a false sense of security about the UKs increasingly extreme weather patterns by news and weather reports that present long, hot, dry spells as good news, according to scientists and campaigners.

Experts say unusually dry and sunny conditions like those experienced in the UK over the past two months are too often framed as something to celebrate, with newspaper and TV reports featuring pictures of people sunbathing, playing in fountains or eating ice creams.

Instead, the experts say, people should be made aware of the risks associated with increasingly hot summers, especially for vulnerable groups, and they should be helped to “join the dots” to see heatwaves and flooding in the context of the wider climate crisis.

“I am afraid the media have not woken up to the risks associated with hot and dry weather and that can help lull the population into a state of ignorance about the extent and severity of those risks,” said Bob Ward, from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.

He said elderly people and those with underlying health conditions were at risk from more regular heatwaves – a danger often compounded by poorly insulated houses or care homes.

“It is all very well to be talking about visits to the beach because it is going to be sunny and hot but we must recognise that there are real risks too, particularly for vulnerable groups of people,” Ward said.

The UK had its sunniest spring on record this year, smashing the previous record by almost 70 hours. England recorded its driest May, following its wettest February.

Ward said that although it was not possible to attribute the latest record-breaking extremes directly to the climate crisis, it was important to set them in a wider context of a rapidly changing environment.

“The media are not very good at helping people to join the dots by placing unusual weather events in context and explaining if they are part of a trend that is linked to climate change, such as more frequent heatwaves or heavy rainfall,” he said.

ProfJoe Smith, the chief executive of the Royal Geographical Society, said many people still assumed hot, sunny weather was good news.

“For many, including a good portion of broadcast weather forecasters, the UKs long, sunny spell simply feels like nice weather. In a wider context, this long, hot, dry spell sits alongside other unseasonal weather such as long, wet, cool spells as signals of the increasing unpredictability of the UKs climate.”

He said for farmers, planning for growing season was now like a “trip to the casino” because of the increasingly erratic weather. But he added: “The fact remains that bold early actions to slash emissions can still cut the larger risks associated with climate change in the UK and around the world, including risks to the food system.”

According to the Met Office, 10 of the warmest years in the UK since records began in 1884 have occurred since 2002. Experts predict the climate crisis means UK summers will become hotter and drier and winters warmer and wetter.

Grahame Madge, from the Met Office, said discussions around how to frame weather in the midst of a climate crisis were ongoing within the organisation, but he insisted it would not “leap to a climate change conclusion” every time there was a “spell of warm weather”.

He said: “There is a spectrum of public opinion out there: some people regard hot weather as just nice sunny weather they can enjoy, others see anomalous warm spells as a sign of climate change, and we have to be sensitive to both those aspects, covering both weather and climate from an evidence-based perspective.”

Guy Shrubsole, from Friends of the Earth, said the 600 active flood warnings in February, followed by a record-breaking dry and sunny spring when only 4mm of rain fell in south east England, should raise alarm bells.

“Its not good enough to just try to enjoy the dry weather when its actively harming crops and records are being broken with alarming frequency. Climate breakdown fuelled by carbon emissions can only mean more extreme swings, making us go from floods and droughts in a few months, with all of the misery that both cause.”