Are these heatwaves the shape of things to come?

Image result for tomato plantsThese past weeks of heat and sun have evoked different emotions in me. Enjoyment, of being able to pad about barefoot in the garden long into each evening. Trepidation, about our thirsty tomato plants when we left them for two scalding weeks. And intrigue, as the dry weeks parched the UK’s soil of moisture, and revealed ancient places where people lived and farmed, worshipped and were buried. This heatwave has shown us something of our past, the shape of things that were there all along. We just didn’t know it.

And the question that left me unnerved during these hot, rainless weeks has been this: are these heatwaves also showing us the shape of things to come?

The shape of the science

In short, yes. Heatwaves are likely to be more frequent in our changing climate. By the 2040s, heatwaves as severe as the one in 2003 could be happening every other year in the UK. And while this might sound like the promise of more barbeque seasons, a recent report by the UK Environment Audit Committee (EAC) highlighted the threat to health, wellbeing and productivity that heatwaves pose. The average number of heat-related deaths is expected to triple to 7000 a year in the UK by the 2050s.

City Sunset in Smog

Getty Images

And climate change won’t bring just a few weeks of hot weather. The phrase ‘hothouse Earth’ hit the headlines after a review published in the American Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on 6 August reminded us again of the shape of things to come if we don’t keep warming below 2°C. Beyond that, we risk reaching a tipping point. The melting ice, warming seas and dying forests could emit into the atmosphere the carbon that they currently store. The world could enter a ‘hothouse’ state, in which our actions to reduce emissions would be negligible. The heatwaves could be a foreshadowing. But I hope, instead, they will be the canary in the mine, the warning sound that provokes action in time to sidestep calamity.

The shape of the conversation

Residents in Kerala look at the devastation caused by flooding, August 2018


The weight of scientific evidence for climate change hasn’t always been enough to shape its narrative. Over the years it has been dismissed as too big, too complex or too distant – felt only by the women, men and children like those that Tearfund works with. People’s lives have been devastated with recent flooding in India, drought and malnutrition in Burundi, and previous storms in Haiti. So will the heatwaves, beating down on our own bodies and backyards, be enough to shift and shape the conversation about our changing climate?

They have certainly dominated the headlines in recent weeks. Encouragingly, some historically sceptical publications have been explicitly making the link between our current weather and the world’s warming – as highlighted in Carbon Brief’s media analysis. Recent polling found that the heatwaves and wildfires have pushed the environment up the political agenda for voters in Sweden ahead of September’s general election. But will this remain the case when the temperature drops a few degrees? Research shows that the weather events – heatwaves and floods – of the last 10-15 years have not been enough to improve people’s awareness of climate change in the UK, as highlighted in the EAC report. Whether the impact of the heatwaves will translate into long-term acceptance and action remains to be seen.

The shape of our actions?

And yet, the heatwave is also the reminder of how urgent action is. Like those newly revealed ancient burial grounds, the heatwaves have exposed the truth of how things really are. Our climate is changing, quickly. It’s been our reality for decades; we just might not have seen it.

In the last few days the temperature has dropped a little. Autumn is on the horizon, bringing with it the annual international climate talks, and the 10 year anniversary of the UK climate change. And I hope, as the heatwaves give way to a chill in the air, we won’t see government or media or dinner time climate conversations and actions come off the boil.


  1. […] Summer 2018 was, in many ways, my dream season. Weeks of bright, bare-footed and loose-armed days. Dinner in the garden every night, finished off with a teapot of homegrown mint tea. Claustrophobic socks left in the drawer. And yet, it was also a mixed bag. A little too hot to function at times; resilience a little fractured once 30 degree days had turned into weeks. And a creeping concern that this is the shape of things to come, the climate change canary in the mine (something I wrote more about here).  […]

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