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Heatwaves are natural disasters too

Quick quiz question that’s already ruined by the title: which extreme weather events kill the most people in developed countries? The answer is heatwaves. Not only are they the deadliest, they kill more people than all other extreme weather events combined.

In America, an estimated 1,500 people die every year from heat. The total from earthquakes, tornadoes and floods together is less than 200. Or take a study of natural disasters across Europe during the decade of the 00s – a total of 77,551 deaths from extreme temperatures, three times more than all the others combined.

You wouldn’t know that from the way heatwaves are often reported. The British papers can be relied upon to report heatwaves with lots of pictures of people in swimsuits and stories about beer sales. Of the various headlines last week, The Star’s ‘Beer we go! Heatwave booze frenzy’ being the least dignified.

To be fair, we seem to be getting better at it. There are stories about being safe, reminders to protect against sunburn, and so on. And it wasn’t as serious in Britain as it was in Europe last week, where it would be harder to be as glib. But there’s still a giddy enthusiasm for barbecues, beer and ice cream that masks the fact that heatwaves kill people.

Being irresponsible in the sunshine is a British tradition and no doubt there is a balance to strike. But considering that the breakdown of the climate is making heatwaves much more frequent and more extreme, we may want to start acknowledging them as natural disasters a little more clearly. Especially since they kill the most vulnerable.

As Eric Klinenberg writes in his book about the 1995 Chicago heatwave,

“Heat waves receive little public attention not only because they fail to generate the massive property damage and fantastic images produced by other weather-related disasters, but also because their victims are primarily social outcasts – the elderly, the poor, and the isolated – from whom we customarily turn away.”

Countries are beginning to adapt. The places that have suffered a particularly devastating death toll are leading the way – see the aforementioned Chicago, or France after the shock of 2003. Contingency plans are in place to protect vulnerable people. Public safety notices are ready to remind people about how to stay cool. We will see more of this, including local heatwave plans and safe cool zones. And as the novelty of heat waves begins to wear off, perhaps we will come to report them differently.

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