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This summer proved how fatal UK’s climate crisis can become

It's vital to push for an effective and focused plan for the future.

22 Sep 2022

Scorched, barren sun-bleached parks, the constant whir of desktop fans, sanity-saving dips in cool blue lidos and trips to the British coastline that could be mistaken for the Med. This is the imagery, pushed by mainstream media, that will stay in the minds of many from this summer’s heatwaves. But with July seeing record-breaking highs of 40˚C and August not far behind with highs of 35˚C across the UK, this year’s heatwaves in Britain and Europe are far from trivial. 

Climate scientist Mike Kendon, recently explained that this summer’s heatwaves were particularly notable because of how widespread they were. “Temperature records tend to get broken by modest amounts and by just a few stations,” he said. “But the recent heat broke the national record by 1.6°C and across an extensive area of the country from Kent to North Yorkshire and from Suffolk to Warwickshire.” The record-breaking temperatures seen this year will pale in comparison to future scenarios if urgent action is not taken, with temperatures exceeding 40°C as frequently as every three years being projected.

“Since 2016, the gap between the risk associated with extreme heat and the adaptation of infrastructure in the UK to withstand that heat has widened”

Many other countries also experienced higher temperatures this summer. Just this May, parts of India reached highs of 49˚C – an event that is now 100 times more likely as a consequence of human-induced climate change. Like India, the UK is alarmingly unprepared for extreme temperatures. Since 2016, the gap between the risk associated with extreme heat and the adaptation of infrastructure in the UK to withstand that heat has widened

More than ever, it’s become clear that the UK’s climate crisis is here and this summer has proved how fatal it is set to become, unless there is radical intervention. So what are the main areas of risk that desperately need addressing? 

Public health

Extreme heat is a curse, not a blessing. It can lead to dehydration, overheating, heat exhaustion and heatstroke. A national heat-health emergency was declared by the Met Office between 18-21 July 2022 and as of 1 August 2022, UK heatwaves had resulted in 1000 excess deaths. The health impacts from extreme heat are not evenly distributed. The elderly, children, pregnant women are some of the most affected, as well as those with chronic health conditions and those living in dense cities and on the top floors of buildings.

Homes and buildings

With 94% of homes in the UK having no air conditioning or only a portable fan, the lack of suitability of the majority of houses and buildings in the UK exacerbates the health impacts from heatwaves. In an interview with the BBC, Prof Mike Davies of University College London explained that “over the last few years, hundreds of thousands of new homes have been built that are not resilient to future high temperatures”. 

“Councils will need to plant more trees, especially in urban areas, in order to reduce temperatures and provide shade for people and wildlife”

From large office blocks and new build apartments clad with glass on all sides, to older brick buildings that store heat like an oven, a large proportion of the UK housing stock will now require retrofits to make them safe, habitable and water efficient in the future. Additionally, councils will need to plant more trees, especially in urban areas, in order to reduce temperatures and provide shade for people and wildlife. The NHS estate will need to be adapted by designing in more vegetation, retrofitting NHS buildings and providing air conditioning to support nurses, doctors and patients.

Water scarcity 

On 12 August 2022, drought was declared in the UK. Rivers disappeared, reservoirs dried up and hosepipe bans were rolled out across the country. Our lack of preparation and future-proofing for water scarcity is exemplified by the fact that we have not built any new water reservoirs in the last three decades, this means that there has been no way of drawing on additional supplies to replace the lost rainfall and dried-up rivers. The impacts of water scarcity due to extreme heat are felt not just in the present but also the future. The heat has turned the ground dry, cracked and impenetrable and as we move out of the summer months, rainfall will lead to flash floods. This phenomenon was explained by scientist Dr Robert Thompson who, using three cups, demonstrated the inability of water to be absorbed by the ground after a heatwave. 

The government must now focus on establishing more reservoirs to support communities through water shortages as well as creating programmes that ensure homes are more water efficient.

Crop failure

In addition to our parks, gardens and green spaces being scorched, the extreme heat and lack of water have proved to be disastrous for farmers around the country. With the threat of more regular heatwaves, many agricultural workers are fearful of increased crop failures. In an interview with The Grocer,  Philip Rayner, owner of grower and oat milk supplier Glebe Farm, shared that his crops were “struggling with heat and finishing too early and shrivelling up”. As well as the hot weather, crops are threatened by wildfires, which have blessed across the UK and Europe this summer.

Crop failures in the UK are a double whammy issue, especially in the context of the cost of living crisis. Not only will food scarcity increase but the price of food will too, making it harder for the most vulnerable to access produce. 

This is a trickier problem to solve and is hugely dependent on strong enough action by governments to curb temperature increases as well as the funding of nature based solutions like the reintroduction of beavers in order to create natural water storage and support irrigation on farms.

How does the UK become more resilient to heatwaves?

As it stands, the UK has been approaching the heatwave in crisis mode. But with the increased likelihood, duration and intensity of summer heatwaves, what we need is a forward-looking, effective and focused plan for the future. Herein lies the issue, as communicated by academic Mike Tipton from the University of Portsmouth, “global heating is perceived as being still a problem for the future”, rather than one of the present.

Most importantly, the government must keep fossil fuels in the ground. We cannot deal with the surface level impacts alone or shy away from communicating and addressing the true cause of extreme weather events such as heatwaves. Without fast, effective and drastic action from governments in the face of fossil fuel extraction, our summers (and those of countries worldwide*) will become unbearable.

Individually, we can make an impact by becoming active members of the climate movement. This doesn’t mean redefining who we are or entering spaces that don’t serve our mental, physical or emotional needs. What it means is becoming an active member in our communities, speaking up about the climate crisis, campaigning for divestment in fossil fuels, attending climate rallies or marches, signing petitions and writing (incessantly) to our local MPs. 

Looking for some places to start?

  • Divest from fossil fuels by changing your bank, energy and pension: SwitchIt are a team of concerned professionals working together to stop the funding of fossil fuels. They believe that people everywhere are tired of waiting for government and corporate action on climate change and want to take concrete action to protect our shared future. With their website, you can find out if your bank or energy provider is funding fossil fuels and switch your money to a recommended provider.
  • Write to (or even go and see in person!) your MP: Many people base their climate actions on the philosophy of thinking globally and acting locally. A great way to push for positive change in your local area is to get your MP on side and keep them accountable for both national and local climate action! Find your MP here:
  • Join Fossil Free London, an organisation that exists to make our city inhospitable to the fossil fuel industry. They organise and take creative actions, stunts, spectacles or protests to tarnish the image of the industry and attack its social licence. 
  • Join Green New Deal Rising, a movement fighting to stop climate change and win a Green New Deal.
  • Join one of many local Friends of the Earth Group, the network of which has been working to make communities more climate friendly, secure Climate Action Plans with local councils and push for urgent government action on the climate crisis

*It is important to note that what we have and will witness in the UK has been happening in Global South countries or years, and that any action we take to improve extreme weather outcomes on British shores, will also provide climate justice for countries even more vulnerable to extreme heat and drought.

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