UK heatwave: Extreme heat an increasing threat to health without rapid transition away from fossil fuels
- Adequate heatwave plans and adaptation measures must be put in place to protect health across the whole of the UK, with evidence of the adverse impacts on vulnerable populations explicitly considered and addressed.
- Without adequate adaptation measures, heat-related deaths in the UK could rise to 7,000 a year by the 2050s.
- A rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels, which are a major contributing factor to global warming, must be put into action.
The extreme heat in the UK and across Europe is threatening peoples’ health, warn health organisations today. Heat vulnerability in the UK has been steadily rising, with an ageing population and increase in underlying health conditions, and without adequate measures to adapt heat-related deaths are expected to rise to around 7,000 each year by the 2050s.
Last summer, there were more than 1,600 excess deaths recorded during heatwave conditions in the UK, with 90 per cent of excess deaths observed in over 65 year olds. Climate experts have consistently warned of increasing risk to life with a higher frequency of extreme heat events as the planet continues to warm. The UK Government must work to limit climate change and its impacts on human health, including by improving heatwave plans and urgently transitioning away from fossil fuels.
At present the UK is expected to see 40C heat once in every 100 to 300 years, but this is predicted to increase to once in every 15 years by 2100. Lancet Countdown reports have consistently shown that vulnerability to the extremes of heat is increasing in every region of the world, putting extraordinary strain on people’s health, particularly the elderly, very young children and infants, pregnant women, and those with pre-existing health conditions.
Dr Liz Marder, Chair of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health Climate Change Working Group, said: “Young children are especially vulnerable to heat-related illness. They are less able to regulate their temperatures than adults, making them susceptible to dehydration, heat stroke and exhaustion, which can lead to death in the acute situation. Longer-term effects of increasing temperature on the environment can cause or exacerbate many long-term conditions. As temperatures rise across the UK, heat will become an increasingly important consideration for paediatricians, and greater attention must be paid to raising awareness of the risks from heat and the adverse impacts in early life and during pregnancy, with families encouraged to follow government advice on keeping children cool.”
Dr Marina Romanello, Executive Director of the Lancet Countdown said: “The temperatures in England this week are exceptional, posing a life-threating risk for many people in the UK. These rising temperatures show how climate change has become an existential threat. We cannot let extreme heat become the norm. Efforts to mitigate the changing climate must accelerate to protect health and prevent temperatures from rising beyond the bounds of a liveable future.”
Adequate heatwave plans and adaptation measures must be put in place to protect health across the whole of the UK. Tailored guidelines must reduce heat stress for the elderly, in particular, and greater attention must also be drawn to the risks in early life and potential adverse impacts during pregnancy.
Beyond such adaptation measures, the government must fundamentally do more, faster, to slow the rate of global warming. A rapid transition away from fossil fuels, which are a major contributing factor to global warming, must be put into action. Despite the repeated warnings and commitments to end inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and support for the fossil fuel sector overseas, the UK continues to subsidise fossil fuel companies while unaffordable energy prices are placing individuals and families at risk of fuel poverty and ill health in inadequately insulated homes.
Immediate health benefits could be secured by eliminating all forms of government subsidies and investments for fossil fuel exploration, extraction and sales, and redirecting funds towards subsidies for renewable energy and upgrading home insulation across the UK. Care must be taken to ensure this is a just transition that does not exacerbate existing health inequalities.
Dr Elaine Mulcahy, Director of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, said: “The scale of the challenge, both in terms of the magnitude and rate of change of global warming, is strongly dependent on the mitigation and adaptation actions we take now. This requires rapid, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions combined with widespread adaptation action. The IPCC report has warned that progress is not happening fast enough. Rapid, urgent action is needed to protect health.”
In 2021, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the Lancet Countdown published UK policy recommendations, available here.
The Lancet Countdown
The Lancet Countdown is a global, interdisciplinary research collaboration hosted by UCL, tracking how climate change is impacting health. The Lancet Countdown works to ensure that health is at the centre of how governments understand and respond to climate change. Our work ranges from ensuring policymakers have access to high-quality evidence-based guidance, through to providing the health profession with the tools they need to improve public health.
The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change
The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change is an alliance of health organisations, including Royal Colleges, Faculties, Students for Global Health, British Medical Association, Academy of Medical Sciences, Royal Society of Medicine, British Medical Journal, and the Lancet. The total membership of our members is almost 1 million health professionals. The Alliance brings together health professionals to advocate for just responses to the climate and ecological crisis, promote the health benefits that flow from those responses, and empower members and health professionals to make changes in their professional and personal lives to respond to the crisis.
Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
The RCPCH is responsible for training and examining paediatricians, setting professional standards and informing research, quality improvement and policy. RCPCH has 20,000 members in the UK and internationally. We work to transform child health through knowledge, research and expertise, to improve the health and wellbeing of infants, children and young people across the world.