Climate changed. But have we woken up yet?

The UK's in the grip of a heatwave. Just like 1976. Except... it isn't.

The maps of global temperatures below show that while the UK along with a couple of other small areas, had abnormally warm temperatures in June 1976, much of the rest of the world was below average temperatures.* June 2018 looks very different.

*the comparison period is 1951-1980, so 'average' is already warmer than, say 1851-1880.


(Credit to meteorologist Simon Lee, @SimonLeeWx on Twitter, for sharing these comparative maps.)

So it's not just the UK sweltering: high temperatures around the world show that our climate has changed. And the impacts are deadly, in Japan, Greece, Toronto, with wildfires raging in the Arctic circle and farmers in Europe struggling. 

These heatwaves may be described as the 'new normal'. In one sense that's true - they will become more frequent. But it may also be misleading. Our climate is not resettling around a new normal but becoming increasingly unstable as we continue to overload the atmosphere with CO2.

So are we starting to join the dots? To see that our climate has changed, continues to change, and we are accelerating this dangerous shift by refusing to break our addiction to fossil fuels? After weeks of cheerful headlines about the joys of the UK heatwave, the tide may be turning. Below, the front pages of the Daily Mail on 24 July froths about 'killjoy' warnings to stay out of the sun. But even The Sun has caught up with the global situation 'The World's On Fire', it announces (25 July). And the Today Programme on Radio 4, after steadfastly ignoring any mention of climate change during its heatwave coverage, finally caved on the same day and included a very brief report on the Committee on Climate Changes warnings that the government should do more to 

Here in the UK, we've experienced many weeks of dry heat. Some southern counties received just 10% of normal rainfall for June. Mainstream media have largely reported this as a bit of luck - a chance to enjoy a long hot summer, with weather forecasters talking about the 'threat' of rain, even as many UK farmers face reduced harvests or struggle to keep livestock healthy. And they aren't the only ones - farmers in the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, the Czech Republic and Belarus are fearing crop failure and bankruptcy. Saddleworth Moor burned for three weeks before being finally extinguished after 3 weeks 

But events around the world may finally be shaking complacency - a timeline of broken temperature records and not-so-natural disasters show human tragedy as the face of climate change.

On the night of Monday 23 July, horrific fires swept through a coastal town in Greece, killing at least 80, and forcing people into the sea to survive.

An unprecedented heatwave in Japan has killed at least 65, and declared a 'natural disaster'. This followed close on 'historic' levels of torrential rain earlier in the month, killing at least 155 in floods and landslides (while climate change can cause drought, it also increases the risk of more intense rain).

The most striking abnormal heat records have been around the Arctic Circle. At least 11 wildfires were burning in the Arctic Circle as Sweden, the worst assisted country, called for international assistance. Finnish Lapland set a new heat record of 33.4C.

Among other record-breaking temperatures this summer, Quriyat in Oman broke the record for the world's hottest low temperature: over 24 hours, the lowest temperature recorded was 42.6C.

Where does the jet stream come in?

Climate change increases the 'base level' temperatures but there is another way in which it can cause heatwaves. The jet stream is a fast-flowing river of air which weaves round the northern hemisphere at altitudes of over 6 kilometres above us. It separates cold air nearer the poles from warmer southern air. Since May, a big loop of the jet stream has stalled above Europe, giving us cloudless, windless - and hot - conditions. 

There is increasing evidence that the jet stream stalling could be a symptom of our changing climate. As the Arctic warms more than other parts of the globe, the north-south temperature difference weakens, the jet stream appears to slow. Its path becomes more meandering, with big swings that allow cold air from the Arctic much further south or warm air to reach north. Secondly, these meanders or loops tend to stay in the same place for longer so unusual weather lasts for longer periods.

Could heatwaves trigger greater public support for climate action?

There is some evidence that heatwaves can shift public attitudes. But a recent survey found that just 36% of the British public understood that climate change was caused by human activity ('mainly' or 'entirely'). How has this confusion come about?

Part of the responsibility has to lie on our media to make it clear that a global heatwave is no natural phenomenon but part of a clear trend; that global warming is caused by human activity; and that our decisions - for example whether to allow unlimited aviation expansion - directly connect to our chances of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Mainstream media seem to be shifting on the first (although with a long way to go). Progress on the last, and most important of these is sadly lacking, however.

There are a couple of things you can do - complain about unbalanced or misleading coverage (usually by omission of climate change entirely). Give positive feedback for informative articles and the effort of journalists to get these published.

The BBC in particular has a public service duty to educate. If you want to comment on how particular topics are covered, you can make a complaint online or by calling 03700 100 222.