Deniers Are Being Predictably Obnoxious About the UK Heat Wave

Deniers Are Being Predictably Obnoxious About the UK Heat Wave
A sign in London. (Photo: Sebastian Gollnow, AP)

The UK just smashed temperature records, in another startling sign of how climate change is altering everyday life. But according to some climate deniers, it’s still not hot enough to be concerned.

On Tuesday, Heathrow Airport in London clocked a temperature of 40.2 degrees Celsius, marking the first time that temperatures in Britain have officially gone over 40 degrees Celsius. Tuesday proved to be a record-setting day throughout the country, with multiple other sites also recording readings above or very close to 40 degrees Celsius.

It’s not just the daily highs that are staggering: the lows are also up there. On Tuesday, the country’s Met Office reported that minimum daily temperatures held at 25 degrees Celsius overnight in various parts of the country, significantly outpacing the previous highest daily minimum of 23.9 degrees Celsius.

Europe is in the midst of a dangerous heat wave that has crippled the continent for the past week, killing up to a thousand people in Spain and Portugal and sparking wildfires in multiple countries. This is the second intense heat wave of the summer and follows a particularly hot and dry spring juiced up by climate change.

“I wasn’t expecting to see this in my career,” Professor Stephen Belcher, the Met Office’s Chief of Science and Technology, said in a video posted to Twitter. “Research conducted here at the Met Office has demonstrated that it’s virtually impossible for the UK to experience 40 degrees C in an undisrupted climate. But climate change driven by greenhouse gasses has made these extreme temperatures possible, and we’re seeing those possibilities now.”

But these jaw-dropping temperatures are no big deal to climate deniers. British right-wing commentator Darren Grimes on Monday posted to Twitter a (terribly made) graphic depicting a peaceful beach contrasted with a burning hellscape of a city; the caption to the image reads “Australia at 40C” over the photo of the beach, and “British media predicting 40 degrees Celsius in the UK” over the picture of the city on fire. (Grimes has been adamant that he is not a “denier” but a “climate realist,” because he says he accepts climate change is happening — but still continues to tweet stuff like this that flies in the face of science, so I’m not sure what he’s angling for here.)

Meanwhile, Bjorn Lomborg, a prominent climate contrarian, published a lengthy Twitter thread Monday that used cherrypicked figures to contrast deaths from extreme heat in Spain versus those from the cold to argue that the heat wasn’t that serious. Lomborg has beat this drum before, including in a column in the New York Post where he called the response to last year’s bombshell IPCC report a reaction of the “hyperventilating media” and misleadingly claimed that climate change was helping to decrease deaths from extreme cold. Some of the scientists whose studies Lomborg cited as “evidence” for this claim have publicly denounced his use of their work and said that his interpretations are incorrect; by the looks of Lomborg’s Twitter thread, which recycles these bad assertions, it seems he didn’t get that memo. (Grimes also echoed some of Lomborg’s rhetoric later in the day when he tweeted that “more people die from the cold than the heat.”)

The implications of these tweets are well-worn climate denier territory: that the media is getting overworked about nothing, that a little heat wave is not worth all the bother, that we’ll be fine in the face of this new reality. Like most climate denier rhetoric, they seem based in common sense — but a little tugging on the strings helps them all fall apart.

Let’s take Grimes’s flip assertion that a 40-degree day means nothing more than a trip to the beach in Australia. Life lived in the summer in the UK is vastly different to what it’s like during the hot season in Australia, where people are used to searing temperatures. A shockingly small number of households in the UK have air conditioning — estimates range from under 1% to under 5%. By contrast, 75% of Australian households have at least one air conditioner. Meanwhile, the features of urbanized areas can amplify heat waves; it’s a lot easier to keep cool by the water than in a crowded city like London.

“The UK is built for cold weather — you’ve got buildings intentionally designed to trap heat, because that’s what they’ve had to do for centuries, and you’ve got a low air conditioning penetrability,” said Kurt Shickman, the director of Extreme Heat Initiatives at the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Centre. “If you’re not used to dealing with the heat, it may not be in your traditions or how you manage things, or the way your parents manage things, to know what to do in hot weather. We know basics like, drink water, stay in the shade, cool spaces — but when you’re actually facing one of those days that may not be internalized across a wide swath of the population, especially if you’ve been living in one place for a long time… There’s a certain amount of behaviour change that’s needed that may not exist in the UK that do in, say, Phoenix.”

The sky-high nighttime temperatures come into play when considering how homes specifically — where people rest at night — are designed. Nights are becoming even hotter in both the UK and the U.S., which is bad news for human health: hotter nighttime temperatures can allow heat stress to keep accumulating, providing little relief for exhausted bodies and putting people, especially the elderly and immunocompromised, at risk of heat-related illness and death. Lomborg’s suggestion to simply “stay cool w/AC+follow advice” rings hollow when you consider the fact that many people in the UK, including those for whom high temperatures may be deadly, may not have access to a home that can keep them cool at night.

“A heat wave doesn’t hit a place — it hits people,” Shickman said. “We can identify who typically is the most vulnerable: pregnant women, the elderly, children, people with preexisting conditions like diabetes and renal disease, people dealing with drug addiction, people who have to be outside like outdoor workers, unhoused people. But I don’t want to take away from the fact that if you look at the research, everybody is negatively affected by heat. You’ve got people in their late 20s, early 30s interfacing with the emergency departments at a much greater rate in the U.S. than they would otherwise. [Lomborg’s] suggestion to just stay in the A/C — people are going to face increased heat and not have access to the kind of cooling he takes for granted with that tweet.”

It’s beside the point to wonder what temperatures would get bad-faith actors like Grimes and Lomborg actually concerned about climate change, which they both insist they accept is happening (does the UK need to burst into flames for them to finally get worried?). But beyond what’s just happening this week, the impact of high temperatures can last beyond the days and weeks of a specific heat wave. Worker productivity, education, longer-term health issues — research shows that multiple facets of our society will be changed as places like the UK get hotter than usual.

“It’s not just this immediate challenge of will I survive tomorrow, or the next day,” Shickman said. “It’s a question of how do people have access to heat-resilient spaces so they perform to the best that they can? Heat is more than just an event — it’s a thing we’re going to have to live through if we’re not taking action soon.”