Is climate change denial in the ‘Daily Mail’ killing its readers?
The UK Office for National Statistics has revealed that there were several hundred extra deaths in England and Wales during this summer’s heatwave.
The statistical bulletin on ‘Excess winter mortality in England and Wales: 2017 to 2018 (provisional) and 2016 to 2017 (final)’ highlighted that there were more than 50,000 excess deaths during the 2017-18 winter, the largest number since 1975-76.
However, it also showed that there were an above average number of deaths during three periods of very warm weather in April, June and July 2018.
During unseasonably high temperatures on 18 and 19 April, there were 240 more deaths than the annual average for the period between 2013 and 2017.
Similarly, there were 301 more deaths than average during the heatwave alert by Public Health England on 25 and 26 June, and a further 353 additional deaths on 26 and 27 July when the Central England Temperature record measured the highest daily maximum temperatures of the summer.
This death toll occurred despite the Government having introduced a ‘Heatwave plan for England’ following the deadly summer in 2003 when thousands died in the UK and across Europe.
The implementation of the plan has included a ‘heat-health watch’ carried out by the Met Office and Public Health England, with alerts given ahead of expected high temperatures.
We do not know the circumstances of the hundreds of people who died during this summer, but a recent review of research on previous heatwaves in the UK concluded that many of those who succumb have underlying health problems.
One study found that some elderly people die at home during heatwaves in houses that overheat because they are not well-adapted for high temperatures.
And these risks are escalating because of climate change.
Analysis by researchers at the Met Office has identified an increase in the frequency of heatwave conditions recorded at weather stations in the UK over the past few decades. A paper by Michael Sanderson and co-authors, published last year, stated: “Positive trends in numbers and lengths of longest heat waves were identified at many stations using data from 1961. These results are consistent with the anthropogenic climate warming signal.”
The Office for National Statistics has recorded spikes in deaths during hot weather over the past three summers. In June, Public Health England published the results of an investigation that concluded there were 908 extra deaths across the country during three periods of heatwave conditions in summer 2016.
However, the ‘Daily Mail’ newspaper chose to mislead its readers about the rising risks of heatwaves in a shockingly irresponsible article published on 26 July at the start of the two-day period when summer temperatures reached their highest.
The opinion piece by the veteran climate change denier, Christopher Booker, appeared under the deadline: ‘The predictable cry has gone up: climate change is causing the heatwave. Sorry, that’s just hot air…”.
The article set out to convince readers that climate change is having no impact on the frequency and intensity of heatwaves, in direct contradiction of the scientific evidence. Its final paragraph stated: “We shall continue to have abnormally hot summers from time to time, just as we did in 1976 and 1846, way back before global warming was invented”.
We do not know how many of the people who died during the heatwaves this summer were ‘Daily Mail’ readers, of whom almost half are aged 65 or more. But there is good evidence that the false notion that heatwaves are not increasing can have fatal results.
The 2014 progress report by the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change drew attention to a study showing the UK public perceived that the incidence of heatwaves and hot weather had decreased over their lifetimes.
The Sub-Committee made a connection between the public’s misapprehensions about heatwave frequency and the risk of overheating that many people face in their homes, stating: “There is very little evidence that cooling measures, in particular external measures, are being fitted to existing dwellings. This could be due to a perceived low level of current risk.”
Since the ‘Daily Mail’ published Mr Booker’s propaganda, further evidence has emerged showing that the risks of heatwaves are on the rise.
Last week, the Met Office announced the results of a study that estimated this summer’s heatwave had been made more than 30 times more likely by climate change.
And last month, the Met Office published projections of how climate change could affect the UK over the coming century, and indicating that the probability of a summer as hot as 2018 would rise to about 50 per cent by the 2050s.
With the ‘Daily Mail’ intentionally misleading its readers about the growing risks of heatwaves, it is a clear example of a newspaper adhering to an extreme editorial line at the expense of its readership’s welfare.
Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.