What will we think of our reaction to this heatwave in a decade? The narrative over the last few days has been predictably positive. As temperatures rose above 20C, we wore t-shirts outside and ate ice cream at lunch. The Daily Mail posted its customary pictorial of scantily clad women in London parks. The unseasonal weather was a welcome distraction from the dreariness of late winter and the obstinacy of Brexit.
At worst, these temperatures – the hottest ever recorded in winter – were a scientific curiosity, justifying short articles with pictures of surfers on a gorgeous beach at sunset. What a shame that it’s not going to last.
Extreme heat is a classic indicator of environmental breakdown. As global temperatures rise, weather systems are disrupted, leading to more erratic periods of hot and cold. For the UK, this means warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers. Over the last week, scientists have been clear in concluding that climate change is a major cause of the record temperatures.
Moreover, the heatwave comes off the back of months of increasingly severe warnings from global authorities and the scientific community. In October last year, the UN urged greater action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions as only 12 years remain to avoid catastrophic warming in excess of 1.5C.
By December, Sir David Attenborough was imploring global leaders to act, warning that “the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.” Earlier this month, the Met Office predicted that the temperature rise could exceed 1.5C within the next five years. Forgive me if you’ve heard this before, but we are on the cusp of disaster.
Yet climate breakdown has remained largely absent from the media narrative, with scientific warnings relegated below descriptions of the “glorious weather.” Weather forecasts are a case in point, deploying the now-standard script for heat extremes: “We broke the all-time February temperature record! It really does feel like summer! But sorry, it’ll be back to normal at the weekend.” Meanwhile, wildfires rage across the UK.
Weather forecasts are likely a key means by which people – including politicians and business leaders – understand and interpret weather. By celebrating heat and contextualising its record-breaking severity as a positive development, weather forecasts form part of a wider failing of the media – our primary means of learning and interpreting the world around us – to accurately and honestly discuss the crisis we face.
And when climate breakdown is mentioned, it is often in relation to the immediate issue – in this case to answer whether the temperature rise was the result of climate change – without offering a wider perspective. This favours cautious language that comes across as highly uncertain to the average reader.
Yet the holistic narrative about climate breakdown is clear. Bodies including the World Economic Forum and Ministry of Defence warn that extreme weather and the general failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation are some of the greatest risks facing the world. The UN Secretary General has emphatically labelled climate breakdown a “direct existential threat.”
Extreme weather is not a curiosity to be discussed in isolation; its violent disruptions are the clearest indicator yet that we have entered a new era of environmental breakdown.
Important political movements have emerged in reaction to this new reality and brought much needed energy. The growing wave of school strikes and other actions taken by younger generations have highlighted the acute inter-generational dimensions of environmental breakdown. It is they who will, in a decades time, wonder at the paucity of the reaction to these heatwaves.
Underpinning many of these movements is the call for fundamental reform of our economies and societies, to halt environmental breakdown while building a more prosperous and just world, currently epitomised by campaigns for a Green New Deal.
These movements are rightly united in their condemnation of leaders to change the narrative around climate breakdown and respond adequately. But their success or failure will also depend on how the media depicts climate change. In a decade, will we still be greeting heatwaves with positive coverage?
The choice is ours: we’ll either look back in shock and anger at a world fraying at the seams, its nonchalance about the warning signs of climate breakdown a signal of pitiful denial. Or we’ll see this as a moment of epochal shifts, with a growing cacophony of climate movements demanding we avoid catastrophe.
It’s time to put your ice cream down and demand better.
This article was originally posted in the New Statesman.