Misleading posts criticising heat index warnings spread online as Philippines swelters

Multiple experts have rebuffed a misleading online claim shared during extreme heat in the Philippines that the heat index  -- a measurement of the "real feel" temperature after humidity is taken into account -- was being used to "advance climate change propaganda". They told AFP the index was an important tool to signal the dangers of humid heat. Extensive scientific research has found climate change is causing heatwaves to become longer, more frequent and more intense.

The misleading posts surfaced as the Philippines endured extreme heat in late April, prompting thousands of schools to suspend in-person classes and authorities to issue health warnings.

"It's really hot in the Philippines during summer. Nothing unusual there," read a post written in a mix of English and Visayan that was shared on Facebook on May 5, 2024.

"What is unusual is when bigger figure heat index is now being used to confuse and deceive people, and to advance climate change propaganda," it added.

AFP has repeatedly debunked misinformation around the climate crisis.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says it is "unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land" -- and that CO2 is the main culprit (archived here and here).

The UN's World Meteorological Organization has said Asia is warming at a particularly rapid pace (archived link).

The misleading post subsequently included a screenshot of a Tagalog-language social media comment that translated as, "We should just stick to the actual temperature because that's what's internationally recognised, whether that's Celsius or Fahrenheit, as long as it's the real temperature, not the more confusing heat index.

"People are shocked because they assume it is hotter here than the Middle East because of the confusion caused by the heat index measurement used by Pagasa," it added, referring to the Philippine weather bureau.

<span>Screenshot of the misleading post taken May 23, 2024</span>
Screenshot of the misleading post taken May 23, 2024

A similar misleading claim was posted elsewhere on Facebook here, here and here; as well as on social media site X.

According to Pagasa, the Southeast Asian nation's capital Manila hit a record high of 38.8 degrees Celsius (101.8 degrees Fahrenheit) on April 27 with the heat index reaching 45C (archived link).

The heat index is useful for public health, several experts told AFP, contrary to the misleading claim that circulated online.

"High levels of humidity make extreme heat much more dangerous because it reduces our ability to cool down by sweating," Mariam Zachariah, a climate researcher at the Imperial College London, told AFP on May 14.

She said the heat index was "an important tool" to signal the dangers of humid heat.

"If you told a person that they might experience temperatures of 36C the next day, they might decide to go about their day as normal," Zachariah explained.

"But if you told them that the humid heat will feel like it is 50C, they will probably take actions to protect themselves, like staying indoors during the hottest part of the day."

"There are many instances when the heat index is higher than the temperature," Clare Nullis, media officer at the World Meteorological Organization, told AFP on May 10.

"So when the heat index is higher, the risks to health are higher," she said.

The months of March, April and May are typically the hottest in the Philippines but conditions in 2024 had been "unusual", Pagasa chief climatologist Ana Solis told AFP on May 10.

All-time high temperatures had been surpassed in six of the weather bureau's nine weather stations, she said.

This year's conditions were exacerbated by the El Nino weather pattern yet even without the phenomenon "we are seeing an increasing trend of global warming," Solis added.