Climate change is here and now
All things being equal, we might all prefer the local weather to be balmier.
Northern Ireland is cold and wet and windy, often all at once. Joking about the rain is a national pastime.
The good news is that NI, like the rest of the UK, is getting warmer. The bad news is that the good news is bad news.
This summer the British Red Cross published Feeling the heat, a briefing on heatwaves in the UK, which lays out how climate change is not a problem for the future, it is happening now.
We may only be at the thin end of the wedge, but just because things will be much worse in a few decades does not mean there are no problems now.
Climate change is an existential risk. It poses dangers to food growth (and ecological health in general), to the liveability of many places on Earth, to low-altitude land via rising sea levels, and on and on.
Life on Earth is one interconnected system and a significant change to the climate (for instance, a global temperature rise of a couple of degrees) will lead to enormous change.
But now – right now – we are starting to see a higher frequency of extreme weather events worldwide. In the UK, heatwaves are a growing problem.
Over 2,500 excess deaths were recorded in England last summer (2020) as a result of high temperatures.
This is a record number of deaths, and far higher than the average of around annual 1,200 heat-related excess deaths seen over the past five years.
British Red Cross research found that the number of heatwaves in the UK has increased and will continue to rise, while the average length of warmer periods has more than doubled in length “and by 2050 the UK will be 50 per cent more likely to experience hot summers, while heat-related deaths could more than triple, to around 7,000 per year“.
The impact of heatwaves can be very broad. People dying is obviously the worst aspect, but last August a severe water shortage led to more than 300 households in West Sussex having no water for five days, and there were an estimated 5 million staff days lost, at a cost of approximately £770 million to the UK economy.
As climate change continues, and heatwaves grow longer and more extreme, water shortages (for instance) will also be more widespread and long-lasting.
In general, Northern Ireland is not as warm as the South of England but this does not mean the risks can be ignored. Moreover, the trend in temperatures is going in the same direction. NI saw the record for its highest-ever temperature broken several times this summer.
Per the report: “While the majority of adults see heatwaves in the UK as a potential risk to the health of others, some who are vulnerable under-estimate the risk to themselves.”
The research found that a majority of the public have experienced adverse health effects as a result of hot weather, and one in 12 people have sought clinical help such as calling their GP, calling an ambulance or going straight to hospital.
The Red Cross says that the public knowledge of what a heatwave entails, how dangerous it can be, and how to respond (at individual- and community-level) could all be better.
“[M]any people underestimate the seriousness of heatwaves in the UK. Four in 10 UK adults think heatwaves are a normal part of summer, and over a third of UK adults believe heatwaves will be a problem in the UK in future, not now.
“Although most UK adults say they know how to protect themselves during a heatwave, many have never seen information about this, including those who are most vulnerable to extreme heat. Two in five UK adults say they have never seen information on how to protect themselves during a heatwave, and one in 10 say they have never had advanced warning that a UK heatwave is expected.”
Red cross message
According to the report: “The UK is getting hotter. As a result of climate change, heatwaves are becoming longer and more extreme, and many people’s health and wellbeing are suffering as a result – older people, urban populations and those with underlying health conditions are particularly at risk.
“While a lot of us in the UK welcome spells of warm weather, we are too often unaware of the damage they can cause - over a third of UK adults think heatwaves will be a problem in the UK in the future, not now…
“Heatwaves can cause heatstroke and exhaustion, and exacerbate underlying health conditions, such as kidney disease and heart disease. They place significant strain on the health and social care system and cause chaos for our infrastructure and businesses through cuts to water supplies, damaged rail networks and depleted workforces.
“If we don’t act now, the problem will only get worse. Projections show that hotter summers aren’t going away – by 2050, heatwaves are projected to double in frequency and become more intense, resulting in three times more excess deaths caused by hot weather annually.
“Through the British Red Cross’s work responding to emergencies here in the UK and abroad, we are already seeing the devastating impact of climate change, including hot weather. But we also know that extreme weather emergencies don’t need to be disasters. The most negative impacts of heatwaves are serious, but they are also preventable – and they don’t need to be deadly. Simple early action saves lives during periods of extreme heat, from checking in on neighbours and providing first aid right through to implementing early warning and action systems.”
British Red Cross says that policymakers at all levels across the UK need to recognise the human impact of heatwaves (both their effects now, and to anticipate future trends).
The group says that Westminster, devolved governments and councils “need to work together to invest in short-, medium- and longer-term climate adaptation action that tackles indoor and outdoor heat, such as changes to buildings, urban planning and the promotion of green spaces.”
It also says that those who are most vulnerable to extreme heat should be able to access targeted information and support that allows them to act fast and stay safe during a heatwave.
According to Red Cross:
- Local authorities should ensure discretionary cash support is available for people most at risk and vulnerable to heat risk, to help them prepare and respond to a heatwave.
- Public health authorities should share mental health first aid guidance as well as emotional support and advice with higher-risk groups that are impacted by heatwaves.
- Public health authorities should develop and target early communication for the highest-risk groups, to help bridge the risk perception gap and tackle the health impacts that can affect high-risk groups before a heatwave. These should be shared via appropriate channels, given that certain high-risk groups, such as those aged 75+, are more likely to be digitally isolated.
- Public health authorities, local authorities and emergency responders should ensure heatwave warnings and advice are communicated in a range of languages suited to the local population.
- Local authorities and emergency responders should conduct outreach before and during a heatwave to reach the most vulnerable, providing information and practical and emotional support.
- Local authorities and emergency responders should provide information on local green or cool spaces in advance of and during a heatwave to tackle indoor heating risk.
Red Cross also recommends that the community and voluntary sector is better utilised to promote early action when heatwaves occur.
Organisations should be embedded into local heatwave outreach plans, and use their knowledge and expertise to help identify high-risk groups and provide tailored support. The third sector should also have a clear role in any strategies created by Westminster or the devolved parliaments.
“There is work to be done at an individual, community and national level to avoid extreme heat emergencies becoming disasters. Our polling shows that the public must be better informed about the risks that can come from extreme heat, and about the life-saving role they can play in reducing the impact on themselves as well as those around them…
“The VCS [voluntary and community sector] has a vital role to play in this journey. Throughout the response to Covid-19, and through its role working closely with Local resilience forums, the VCS has not only mobilised quickly and flexibly, but also used its insight into community assets and vulnerabilities to inform and improve local approaches.”
“The Climate Change Committee’s Third UK Climate Change Risk Assessment has also identified heat health risk as one of the highest priority areas for action in the next two years… We need to harness expertise and action across sectors, working alongside policymakers and communities to build resilience and preparedness.”
Climate change requires many adaptations. This includes a change in mindset. Northern Ireland is hotter than it used to be. More and more this heat will reach problem levels, with several adverse effects. Climate change is here, now.
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