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Flooding and heatwaves now endanger 12m UK lives, say climate campaigners

05 February 2021


A woman sits near the lake in Regent’s Park, London, during a UK-wide heatwave in August 2020. Temperatures in the capital reached 36ºC

A woman sits near the lake in Regent’s Park, London, during a UK-wide heatwave in August 2020. Temperatures in the capital reached 36ºC

CLIMATE change is threatening the lives of more than 12 million people in the UK, as temperatures soar and severe flooding events become more frequent, a new report says. The elderly and those with conditions such as diabetes are most at risk.

This Report Comes with a Health Warning: The impacts of climate change on public health, released by the Climate Coalition and the Priestley International Centre for Climate on Friday, says that at least 1.8 million people are living in areas at high risk of flooding, and 12 million people are considered to be vulnerable to future summer heatwaves.

For those living with the risk of flooding, there is a high risk of mental-health problems: one in three victims suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Flood victims are four times more likely than those who have been unaffected by flooding to suffer from poor mental health, including depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

The rising elderly population in Britain is particularly at risk from heatwaves: heat-related deaths among the over-65s have risen 21 per cent between 2004 and 2018.

Last year was the joint hottest year globally, and the third hottest year in the UK. There were 16 so-called “tropical nights” in 2020 when the temperature was above 20ºC, which is particularly harmful to health. If global emissions continue to rise, average temperatures in UK cities could increase from between 0.45º and 0.81ºC per decade for the next 60 years. And, as the UK population ages, more and more people will be vulnerable to the effects of soaring temperatures.

Higher temperatures have also led to a rising incidence of diseases such as Lyme disease, as well as Dengue fever and West Nile fever, already present in some European countries, and an increase in cholera infections from warming seawaters.

Clara Goldsmith, the campaigns director at the Climate Coalition, whose members include more than 140 organisations, including church-related charities such as Christian Aid, CAFOD, A Rocha, and Tearfund, said: “Failure to address with speed and scale the climate and ecological crises will spell disaster not only for our natural world, but for public health.”

The report speaks of health benefits from doing more to tackle climate change, including cleaner air, improved well-being, and a reduction in the pressure on the NHS. If just a quarter of the population in England cycled regularly, and there was widespread use of electric bikes, total deaths could fall by 11 per cent, it suggests.

A consultant orthopaedic surgeon and council member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, Scarlett McNally, said: “Exercise is a miracle cure for health, and it should be recognised as the same for the climate. Active travel, like walking and cycling, is a ready-made — and essential — climate- and health-improvement solution.”

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