Judging by the news reports about the latest release of deaths due to excess heat and cold by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) you could be forgiven in thinking that the heatwave of 2022 signalled a climate-induced turn for the worse. According to some alarmist claims, last year’s heat-related deaths are a “stark warning” of the effects of climate change. But looking a little closer at the data shows just how misleading this interpretation is.
Sky News looked at the data for 2018-2022 concluding that London had the highest mortality risk from hot weather of above 29°C. They pointed out that the figures overall showed a dramatic increase in 2022 on the previous year saying that the number of temperature-related deaths on hot days more than doubled from 1990-2022 (2022 – 2,866, 1990 – 1,417).
Only further down the report do you come to the salient point of the recent data, “Despite last year’s steep rise, the overall increase in deaths since 1988 has almost remained static so far, when population growth is taken into consideration.”
The lack of an overall change in death rate per unit of population doesn’t stop some from being alarmist with the unsupportive data. Reacting to the ONS report the head of the World Health Organisation’s Climate Change and Health Unit, Dr Diarmid Campbell-tendon said it was “extremely concerning.”
The BBC also reported the story and said that heat-related deaths had increased in recent years, which is true for 2022 but is far from the complete story. The BBC went on to say that the data suggests that 3,000 more over-65s died than usual in England and Wales last summer. They also did the same as Sky News in finding someone who clearly hadn’t looked too closely at the data. According to Holly Holden of the Centre for Ageing Better “Climate change isn’t something that is happening in the Antarctic or very hot countries, it is impacting lives, and taking lives, here in the UK,” she said.
The Guardian’s coverage was no different misleadingly saying that the number of heat deaths has been increasing over recent years. Those who only read headlines will have seen, “Heat-related deaths in 2022 hit highest level on record in England,” which is an incomplete summary of the statistics.
Deaths due to Cold (blue) and Heat (Red) in England and Wales.
As well as the lack of change in normalised extreme weather deaths it is clear that there was an increase in 2022 over 2021, but it is similar to the increase seen between 1993-5. The deaths from cold, which greatly exceed heat deaths, in 2010 are a clear outlier.
Given that there is no significant trend in total (hot and cold) deaths seen in the past third of a century in England and Wales, where is the story, and where is the climate signal?