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16 June 2022

Are heatwaves the new normal?

Temperatures in parts of the UK could reach 40°C this year.

By India Bourke

It is only mid-June, but once again the heat is coming early. In Europe and North Africa, it is predicted that some nations will see their highest June temperatures on record this weekend, potentially topping 43°C. In the US, 100 million Americans have been urged to “stay indoors” due to the extreme heat and 65 million are experiencing “severe to exceptional” drought; the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are at their lowest ever levels. 

None of this feels normal. At the very least it is unsettling; for those experiencing the worst effects, it is harrowingly grim. Yet such heat is only becoming more predictable as climate change increases its grip. The past seven years have been the hottest since records began. In India and Pakistan, this year’s early extreme heat was made 30 times more likely because of humanity’s influence on the global climate, scientists agree.

Even in the UK – where the most prominent heatwave warnings are so far limited to pleas from the RSPCA and Blue Cross to keep pets at home and well watered – temperatures are set to reach highs of 34 degrees on Friday, their highest this year, the Met office told the New Statesman. If they do, it will become the third June day in the last six years that the milestone has been reached (before that you have to go back to 1976 to find a 34°C day in June).

In light of this rising heat trend, the UK’s national meteorological service took the decision in March to revise the heatwave threshold upwards by 1°C for eight counties. In a number of areas around London it has been moved from 27°C to 28°C, in Lincolnshire from 26°C to 27°C and in the East Riding of Yorkshire from 25°C to 26°C. Temperatures must exceed these levels for three consecutive days to meet the definition.

The Met Office’s decision to recalibrate heat waves’ official definition builds on the evidence that links them to climate change. Rising heat “is a trend that is certainly going to increase,” since continuing to fill the atmosphere with greenhouse gases “loads the dice” in terms of extreme weather events, says the Met Office’s Grahame Madge. The world has already warmed just over 1°C on average since 1880, with countries in Europe and Africa, that directly impact UK weather, warming at an even faster rate, he explains. “The UK is likely to see temperatures topping 40°C in the near future – it could even be this year.” 

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And while it may seem counterintuitive for the Met Office to be lowering the perceived frequency of heatwaves at a time of rising climate crisis, they are right to be concerned about keeping people alert. In 2003, Europe’s heatwave became the continent’s biggest natural disaster on record, killing more than 30,000 people; in 2019 the deadliest disaster event worldwide was also a summer heatwave in Europe. 

Globally, heat is a bigger killer than floods or severe wind, as extreme heat leads to dehydration, heatstroke and inflames existing respiratory conditions. “People don’t seem to realise we are in a new normal,” says Maarten van Aalst, the director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre. “Heatwaves are one of the biggest killers, but few seem to recognise that.” 

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Part of the problem is perhaps complacent media messaging. In Europe, news outlets are still leading with images of young people playing in fountains or lounging on beaches to illustrate the coming threat. In the US, the mainstream news “is great at covering the weather, but horrible at covering the climate,” says Jeff Cohen, the co-founder of RootsAction, an online political network. Cohen points to the lack of links being drawn to climate change by leading channels such as NBC or ABC during their coverage of the unfolding heatwave in the US. “Our mass media is often referred to as a weapon of mass distraction, and when it comes to climate, US mainstream media has some of the worst WMDs around.”

Many European countries, including France and the Netherlands, now have extensive “heat plans”, and mayors are increasingly greening cities, retrofitting homes to improve shade and raising awareness, explains van Aalst.

But there is still much to be done in terms of preparation, especially when it comes to protecting the poorest and most vulnerable. In heat-stressed regions, there should be laws to prevent construction companies from employing outdoor labourers in the midday hours during a heatwave, van Aalst suggests, “so that there’s no unfair competition”. Similarly, efforts to plant trees (which reduce land surface temperatures in cities by up to 12°C), often focus on wealthier neighbourhoods that already have relatively high amounts of green space. A recent report from Chicago shows that fewer trees are being planted in poorer areas than in richer districts.

Politically, progress on addressing both the causes of climate change and adapting to its impacts is still irresponsibly slow. In the UK, Bob Ward, the policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, LSE, notes that the government’s current Heat-Health Alert system is “demonstrably inadequate” and he fears that “the UK is likely to experience hundreds of deaths this summer that could have been prevented”. Meanwhile, Spain this week reportedly saw the arrest of a number of activist-scientists who took to the streets in April to sound the climate alarm about such events.

Earlier and more extreme heat waves are already the new normal. Coping with their effects, however, won’t be normalised until more politicians and the media wake up to the reality of the climate threat.

[See also: Who is to blame for 30 years of climate change inertia?]

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