From prediction to observation: a change in climate change perception

With the Met Office confirming that summer 2018 was the joint hottest summer on record in the UK, Seahorse questions the impact this summer’s notorious heatwave has had on the way climate change is framed.  

Across the Northern Hemisphere, summer 2018 has been characterised by extraordinary climatic extremes, from soaring temperatures to persistent droughts and devastating wildfires. The heatwave has had severe and extensive impacts on human health, agriculture, nature and infrastructure: there were 663 more deaths than average in England and Wales during June and July, whilst consistent water shortages and hot temperatures have caused alarm over crop yields and livestock vitality.

Due to its extremity, the heatwave received a great deal of media attention, beginning towards the end of June when temperatures started to soar across Europe. According to preliminary research by the World Weather Attribution consortium of scientists, this summer’s heatwave was made more than twice as likely by human-caused climate change. The media, however, initially portrayed the heatwave as a result of an unusually weak jet stream, without highlighting any possible links between climate change and the weather we were experiencing. Over time, however, there was a shift in the media’s narrative. Climate change began to be presented as a key cause with even traditionally climate sceptic media outlets, such as the Sun and the Daily Mail, citing the link.

The extreme weather of summer 2018 is in line with climate model predictions, namely that a warmer world will experience more extreme weather. In contrast to remarkably persistent views of climate change as a distant threat, this summer’s extreme weather provided clear evidence that the consequences of climate change are materialising on our doorstep, with serious consequences for human health, livelihoods and the natural environment. It would have been difficult to avoid observing the persistence and unusualness of this summer’s weather, and it inevitably became a key topic of conversation, as evidenced by the increased media interest. So, what might the long-term impact of this summer’s weather be on our framing of the climate change debate? And will this translate into strengthened action?

Primarily, the first-hand observation of the impacts of climate change and warming within the UK this summer has made it increasingly difficult for climate change to be solely termed in the language of prediction; observational data can now add to the framing of the climate change conversation here.

This shift from solely prediction to both prediction and observation in our framing of climate change is key in promoting action and communication. Predictions inherently involve some degree of statistical uncertainty, which makes them subject to scrutiny for various reasons and with various motives.  In the case of climate change, the degree of scrutiny plaguing discussions has often served to hinder much-needed action. Observations, on the other hand, cannot be refuted to the same degree as predictions – it is much harder to deny what is clearly happening around us. Observations from this summer’s heatwave therefore act as vital wake-up calls. In demonstrating that climate change has arrived, this heatwave has increased awareness of the lack of climate change resilience and adaptation currently in place, across both the UK and the world.

Climate change is no longer a future phenomenon framed only within predictions. Instead, it is a present-day threat that we are observing with our own eyes. With its record-breaking temperatures and deadly droughts, summer 2018 has ultimately shifted the way we can discuss climate change and its threats. This heatwave has refocused lost minds and engaged new ones in the fight for action against climate change. Seahorse hopes that once autumn arrives and we experience the inevitable cooler weather, this summer’s irrefutable display of the abnormal changes in our climate system are not forgotten and that the chorus of calls for essential action on climate change continues to grow.