Readers of the Daily Mail were in no doubt as to what the newspaper thought about Monday’s hot weather: it was little more than a “sunny day” where “snowflake Britain had a meltdown”. There was criticism that public services had pre-emptively closed down – and praise for Prince Charles continuing to wear a suit and tie in the heat.
Inside the newspaper, the columnist Stephen Robinson bemoaned how weather maps had dispensed with jolly symbols and instead used deep red colours to show high temperatures. He claimed the Met Office – in cahoots with the BBC – has become an “all-singing, all-dancing amen choir for the climate alarmist ‘Blob’”.
He said other parts of the world coped with extreme heat, adding: “In Africa, real men would wear shorts and safari jackets and hydrate by ordering another few beers.”
The paper’s editorial went further and suggested the reaction was a sign of weakness in the national character: “Listening to apocalyptic climate change pundits and the BBC, you’d think Britain was about to spontaneously combust.”
By Tuesday, after temperatures in the UK hit a record 40.3C, the same newspaper gravely described the “nightmare of wildfires” that had indeed combusted suburban homes of the type occupied by many of its readers.
The extreme nature of this week’s weather has been a reckoning for parts of the UK media, showing the extent to which public coverage around the climate crisis has changed in the last decade.
“Things have changed massively,” said Richard Black, a former BBC environment correspondent who wrote a book on the rise and fall of climate change sceptics in the UK. “I don’t think there’s any more outright climate denial, it’s just not credible any more.”
Although some newspapers still question the links between the climate crisis and individual extreme events, Black said it was harder for them to downplay extreme weather when its readers were watching footage of British homes burning down.
“There’s an extent to which nobody can ignore evidence in front of your eyes,” he said. “You can argue one dramatic picture shouldn’t make a difference but it does. It looks like California or Australia or the areas of the world that have been hit by bad wildfires.”
It wasn’t always the case that British newspapers – and rightwing campaigners and media outlets allied with the Conservative party – were instinctively sceptical about climate science. David Cameron built his rebrand of the Tories around the issue and there appeared to be a cross-party political consensus on the need for action.
A key change took place in the late 2000s with the rise of a small group of climate sceptics including the former chancellor Nigel Lawson and his Global Warming Policy Foundation. The group, one of a number of opaque organisations including the Taxpayers’ Alliance that share an office at 55 Tufton Street in Westminster, quickly found an audience in the national media for its message that the call for radical action was overblown. They seized on the Climategate leak and genuine scientific errors made around the handling of Himalayan temperature data to build a narrative that the threat of climate crisis was overstated.
During this period the BBC would often provide a platform to climate deniers in the name of impartiality and giving a hearing to both sides of a debate, something the broadcaster has since accepted was wrong.
On Monday Extinction Rebellion protesters smashed windows at the London headquarters of Rupert Murdoch’s media company in protest against his outlets’ environment coverage.
In a sign of changing attitudes, journalists at the Times then fell over themselves to tweet about how they had reported on the link between the climate crisis and extreme heat. Yet the Sun, its tabloid stablemate, initially focussed on pictures of people at the beach under the words “super scorchio” .
A new softer form of climate denialism appears to be emerging in rightwing newspapers – one that portrays complaints about extreme heat as part of a wider narrative about the spread of supposed “wokeness”. The Daily Express declared: “It’s not the end of the world! Just stay cool and carry on … ” – while the Daily Telegraph’s leader column acknowledged that the “climate is unquestionably changing” but urged society to simply adapt to the new reality.
Black said this approach ignored the fundamental infrastructure challenges of extreme heat: “If your housing is not built to withstand these impacts you’re going to suffer – it’s not about being a snowflake.”