The latest “we have you now” from alarmists is a brief heat wave that set records in the UK. Forget the Indian “gotcha” heat wave that ended. For three blissful days headlines blazed past “scorching” to serve up “Hellfire”. NBC claimed “Britain is burning” and the CBC said “Europe is living in a disaster movie.” So it’s probably not a good time to mention that the satellite temperature record indicates that the planet is no warmer today than in 2003, because if a non-increase in global temperature can unleash hellfire, imagine what might happen if we got a real one. Or to remind them of a 2019 study suggesting that the Urban Heat Island effect has increased the average temperature reading in British cities by 1.5 degrees just since 1990. Still, we do want to note that we checked the all-time temperature records by continent and they show Africa’s peak dating to 1931, Antarctica’s to 1982, Asia’s to 2017 (but at an airport; otherwise it’s 1942), Europe’s to 1977, North America’s to the pre-World War I era (in 1913), Oceania’s a tie between 1960 and 2022 if you include Australia but 1973 otherwise, and South America taking the prize with… 1905. And also that since nobody denies that it’s gotten warmer since the Little Ice Age ended, nobody should be surprised that it’s warmer now than it was then. The question is how much of the barely 1°C rise since Prince Albert’s day can plausibly be blamed on humans, and how much the fact that we get heat waves can plausibly be blamed on that rise. Instead the discussion seems to have, well, gone to hell.
There was much triumphal lamentation. The Daily Mail screeched “40C ‘Death Valley’ heatwave could overwhelm NHS and cause ‘thousands’ of deaths, expert warns while schools prepare to close early and cancel sports days”. Climate Home News sneered “It takes an advanced level of denial to dismiss the climate crisis during a record-shattering heatwave, but some rightwing British media gave it their best shot.” And included the Daily Mail in that category for some reason. NBC swooned “Heat waves overlap as warming climate makes extreme temperatures more likely” (the email teaser was even more extreme: “Overlapping heat waves unfold around the world as climate change wreaks global havoc”) and said “Pick a spot on Earth. Chances are, there’s a climate emergency unfolding there right now.” So go ahead. Look out your window? Got an emergency going? Didn’t think so.
When we heard from the Daily Mail that “Heathrow was first to reach the 40C barrier” we were especially suspicious about an Urban Heat Island effect since a tarmac is no place to measure temperature unless you actually want it to be hot. (Which many people arguably now do, including weather forecasters who use a harsh red background to report temperatures in the 20s who a few years back showed 30s in cheery green.) And that in 2021 the City of Ottawa released a temperature map that inadvertently suggested that a recent heatwave was confined to heavily paved areas.
The apparent national peak of 40.3 in Coningsby, Lincolnshire, is more impressive since that village is not a major urban agglomeration. And if “[a]t least 34 parts of the country broke the UK’s previous national record of 38.7C… stretching from West Yorkshire to Surrey” it does sound as though the phenomenon may have been real.
We’d still like to know what a carefully constructed network of rural stations like the American USCRN would say about Britain because even small towns have hotspots. Remember also that in 2019 the press touted an all-time French temperature record in Gallargues-le-Montueux obtained by putting a thermometer beside a concrete drain, a steel fence and an asphalt highway, while a Scottish record was generated by the heat blast from an ice cream truck’s generators. But in any case, virtually nobody denies that the planet has been warming since 1850, and warming is surprisingly often connected to higher temperatures. What remains to debate is how much of the warming is unnatural, and whether it’s really true that a trivial increase can unleash “hellfire” in the form of much more frequent and severe deviations from typical conditions, especially upwards.
To say so is to depart from the mainstream, by claiming the very minor warming that already happened has already turned Earth into a lake of fire, instead of saying only that some studies suggest that if it continues, and gets worse, we’ll be in the sulphur soup some day. The RCP8.5 scenario alarmists love to cite envisions temperature increases of between 2.6 and 4.8°C by 2100 and it’s that sort of rise that is generally regarded as likely to cause disaster, not current conditions.
Remember also that while everywhere is warming faster than average, the main alarmist scenarios have the colder places doing so, with more temperature increase in the Arctic than at the Equator and places like the UK in between. Even while trying to scare the bathing suit right off you, an outfit like SciTechDaily offers a NASA-based map showing that it’s a lot warmer at the North Pole now than in the mid-20th century but only very slightly so in, say, the UK. Yet the Guardian trumpeted that “The central England temperature (CET), which is a daily temperature record dataset dating back to 1772, recorded the highest ever daily average temperature of 28.1C, an incredible 2.8C above the previous record.”
It also said “record-breaking heat continues to scorch western Europe”. Not much actually got scorched. But a number of other European cities do seem to have set record temperatures, from Portugal to France. Still, since the general consensus is that the planet is a trifling 1.1°C warmer today than in 1850, it’s hard to understand how the UK could suddenly be nearly three degrees warmer.
The obvious explanation is that we’ve crossed one of these famous “tipping points” that supposedly lurk everywhere in the climate without having tipped during past warming episodes due, perhaps, to lack of newsprint being thrown onto the blaze. We actually don’t know how hot it got in Britain during Medieval Warm Period heat spells, or Roman ones. But we do know that it didn’t lead to runaway catastrophe. Nor does the fact that people are going around saying yeah well attribution science says these heatwaves are now a hundred times more likely, another suspiciously pseudo-precise round number, mean we can dispense with real discussions of why Britain had a very hot summer in 1976 (without breaking the then-record high temperature set in 1911), not to mention the 1921 stinker that, the New York Herald reported without invoking Satan, meant “Even Moist England Has Shortage of Potable Water”.
The point here isn’t that the UK didn’t set records this time. It’s warmer, and so are its highs, even correcting for the non-trivial changes in land use even around many smaller-town monitoring stations. The point is whether the conditions in 1976 or 1921 were any more unusual than what just happened despite being non-greenhouse related. And one way in which the answer seems to be yes is in their duration. Both lasted longer than this mercifully brief episode.
Still, this time is different in ominous ways. Or so we’re told. The CBC’s disaster movie trailer said “European heat wave isn’t a surprise – it’s a warning of what inaction could mean for our future/ From extreme heat to fires to droughts, Europe faces unprecedented events”. Meanwhile Guitar struck this note: “Europe’s record-setting heatwave has forced Pearl Jam to cancel their concert tonight (21 July) in Vienna, Austria” and quoted Robert Stefanski, chief of Applied Climate Services at the World Meteorological Organization, that ‘In the future these kind of heat waves are going to be normal and we will see even stronger extremes.’” And speaking of scorched, one news outlet jumped on the Pearl Jam story to holler that “Wildfires in the southwest of France ravaged an area more than twice the size of Paris”.
Gee whiz. That big? It you’re trying to make them sound unprecedented, we Googled and Paris is fully 105 square kilometres or 41 square miles, “the 34th most densely populated city in the world” whereas France is 643,801 square kilometers so roughly 0.016 percent of it is blazing away. (Which NPR calls “Heat torches Southern Europe, killing hundreds”). But despite all the usual suspects saying the usual things, France has not seen an increase in forest fires in recent years; actually its worst year between 2001 and 2021 was 2002. Was 2002 unusually hot? (No. But 1998 sure was.)
Europe actually has pretty good recent statistics on everything from, well, droughts to fires to extreme heat and they don’t show much of anything unprecedented. Including Britain setting temperature records. Why wouldn’t somebody somewhere set one? They always have before. And why if it’s global aren’t they setting records in most even of Europe, let alone elsewhere?
Why do more American state records still date back to the 1930s than any other decade? NBC tried to horn in anyway with “Punishing heat expands with 216 million people in America expected to endure temps of 90 or above/ New York City could endure its longest heat wave since 2013, and Philadelphia is forecast to hit 100 degrees for the first time in 10 years.” But if it was hotter in New York nine years ago, and in Philly 10, well, not much to see, is there? Though more than when the National Post warned Canadians not to jump in the water to escape our “sweltering heat” for fear of E. coli, a jellyfish or sharks. Or the CBC’s sour “We may not have been unusually hot so far this summer, but things may be changing”. We might get punishing temps of 90 or above which your grandparents wouldn’t have thought odd.
From a statistical point of view it’s also important to realize that if you have fairly reliable temperature records from, say, 1,000 places in the world and nothing much is going on except natural fluctuation, you’re going to get some broken every year. Especially if there is a mild centuries-long increase as part, arguably, of a long-standing natural pattern. It’s only if you focus on those, and ignore other things including places where it’s cooler than normal, which as Anthony Watts notes that it currently is in… Europe, just further east, you’ll get a nice sulphurous bowl of cherries.
Unpleasantly, the Daily Mail also suggests that the outbreak of fires in Britain on its hottest day “may have been ARSON”. Though we say trial first, verdict afterward and hold the capital letters. Including on the question of how much an increase of temperature by one degree or even two actually increases the probability of spontaneous wildfires.
Oh, by the way, the NHS continued to suffer from self-inflicted wounds but did not collapse due to heat exhaustion. Turns out it was just media hype.