Britain is experiencing a heatwave this week, with record temperatures expected today and tomorrow. The mercury has never reached 40C in the UK, and there’s a good chance it will breach that record today.
While this isn’t unusual heat for some parts of the world, Britain is not accustomed to those sorts of temperatures. Homes aren’t designed with cooling measures in mind – no shutters or shaded porches. Air conditioning is relatively rare. School and hospital buildings often overheat. Railways and roads are built with different tolerances. We’re not set up for extreme heat.
Perhaps because so much of the year is grey, British culture goes a bit giddy in the sun. Heatwaves are reported with glee. Even today, with the Met Office issuing its first ever extreme heat warning, the newspapers are treating the heatwave like a summer bonus. Five or six of the front pages today have pictures of people on beaches. The Daily Star even has a picture of someone asleep on a sun lounger, which is just about the stupidest thing you could possibly do under the blazing sun.
While the papers don’t explicitly recommend partying in the sun, the choice of stories normalises certain behaviours. We see articles about crowded beaches, which implies that everyone’s heading to the sea – despite warnings not to travel. Heatwaves regularly feature stories about soaring beer sales, normalising drinking in the sun, which is of course completely against the advice to avoid alcohol in extreme heat.
The Express, the last paper to begrudgingly acknowledge that climate change might in fact be happening, goes with ‘it’s not the end of the world’, and is running articles on over-reacting and ‘hysteria‘. They even have quotes suggesting people should ‘stop being so British’ about it, which is ironic for a newspaper that spends so much time policing Britishness. It’s also ironic that a paper that is famed for its hyperbolic weather headlines is downplaying an extreme weather event when for once it might be justified.
By contrast, the Telegraph mentions ‘public warned to stay at home’ early on, and The Herald puts ‘stay out of sun warning’ right in its front page headline. The Mirror has it both ways by having the line ‘stay in warning amidst deaths fears and travel chaos’ right below its picture of people jumping into the sea.
I wonder if today’s reporting on the heatwave is the last hurrah for this particular cultural blind spot. If Monday’s potentially record temperatures unfold into a crisis in A&E, visible suffering, and very real danger, perhaps the beach photos won’t look so appropriate on Tuesday.
Because the reality is that heatwaves are natural disasters. They claim more lives than any other natural disasters in developing countries.
It’s true that it’s possible for people to enjoy a warm day in the sun. It’s also true that plenty of Brits board planes to Greece or Spain every summer and sit out in high temperatures – but their elderly relatives do not, and that is an important rejoinder to accusations of over-reacting. People in hospitals and old people’s homes are at serious risk this week. So are those living alone in sub-standard housing, or those who do not have a home at all.
Heatwaves are getting more likely, and more severe, as the climate warms. At some point the way we think about extreme heat in Britain needs to change. We need to talk about it, and plan for it. It will have nothing to do with ‘being British’. It will be about health, reducing suffering, and protecting the people we love.