Scientists and health care experts have warned that once the COVID-19 pandemic is dealt with, a new public health risk is on the horizon that needs immediate action: climate change.
A new report, published on Friday by the UK's Climate Coalition, identifies the long-term health consequences of more frequent extreme weather and rising temperatures. It serves as a timely reminder that the climate crisis is a real and present danger — not just to landscapes and ecosystems, but to people too.
“Climate change doesn’t just threaten the places we love. It threatens our health too,” the report says. “The health of more than 12 million people — equivalent to the populations of Greater London and Greater Manchester combined — is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.”
The Climate Coalition is a nonprofit network representing over 140 UK organisations dedicated to fighting climate change, including Global Citizen, Oxfam, the National Trust, WWF, and the Women’s Institute.
The group’s annual “Show the Love” campaign runs from Feb. 1 to 21, and serves as a celebration of all the things people care about and want to protect from the impacts of the climate crisis.
Health and well-being is the focus of the campaign in 2021. The report, produced in collaboration with experts from the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change and the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds, makes it crystal clear that if we want the best possible public health policies post-pandemic, then action on climate change is required immediately.
The UK has experienced relentless flooding in recent times: in fact in the 12 years between 2007 and 2019 there was an extreme flood nearly every year, damaging almost 100,000 properties, data from the Environment Agency, cited in the report, reveals.
“Flooding is one of the UK's biggest climate threats,” the report says. “Around 1.8 million people in the UK are living in areas at significant risk of flooding — a number which could increase by over 40%, to 2.6 million, in as little as 17 years.”
Repeated flooding causes untold damage to homes and is extremely expensive for businesses and communities to recover, but it also comes with a mental health toll that is having a long-lasting impact.
“Almost 1 in 3 people have reported suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after having their house flooded,” the report explains. “And overall, flood victims have been found to be as much as four times, on average, more likely to suffer mental health issues including depression, anxiety, or PTSD than those unaffected by flooding.”
“Given that climatic projections point toward an increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather events this is a concerning prospect for the health of those living in flood-prone areas and for our health service,” the report concludes. “It faces an increasing burden of climate-related physical and mental health conditions.”
⚠️This report comes with a health warning⚠️— The Climate Coalition (@TheCCoalition) February 5, 2021
Today we publish new research showing how our health is at risk because of the climate crisis.
Read the report: https://t.co/CI7XlnFg34#ShowTheLovepic.twitter.com/eJYZVNBBTj
The UK has already started to experience summer heat normally associated with much warmer countries. This means that the danger of heat-related deaths, particularly among older people, increases too. In 2020 the UK experienced no fewer than 16 “tropical” nights, where the nighttime temperature remained above 20 degrees Celsius, according to the report.
Just under 12 million people are especially vulnerable to summer heat waves because of pre-existing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, the report continues, many of them older people. “Heat-related mortality in persons older than 65 years increased by 21% between 2004 and 2018,” it adds.
The heatwaves of 2018 were made 30 times more likely by man-made greenhouse gas emissions, the report explains, and they alone led to 8,500 heat-related deaths.
Meanwhile, the unusually hot temperatures also threaten to bring the risk of a wider range of infectious diseases most Britons will only usually experience when travelling abroad.
“Higher temperatures will increase the suitability of the UK’s climate for invasive species” the report explains. The possibility for diseases spread by mosquitoes and ticks, like Dengue Fever, Lyme disease, and West Nile fever, increases with warmer air and water temperatures. They are already present in some European countries, including Spain, Germany, Italy, the report points out.
"The climate crisis can sometimes feel distant from our daily lives. But it’s already costing lives here in Britain today,” the GP and broadcaster Dr. Hilary Jones writes in a foreword to the research.
Jones warns that climate change will be a “tragic and avoidable health burden on families, and support services,” as well as the NHS. But he argues that immediate health benefits will be achieved with greener policies.
The research delves into the different ways a reduction in carbon emissions — and the policies that go towards achieving that — will bring benefits to our health. These include cleaner air, improved access to green spaces, and healthier lifestyles resulting from things like “active travel”, for example, walking or cycling.
“If, for example, just a quarter of the population in England cycled regularly and there was widespread use of electric bikes, all-cause mortality (total deaths from any cause) could fall by 11%,” the report says.
Better air quality from low carbon transport has the potential to reap huge health benefits too. “Air pollution contributes to 40,000 premature deaths each year,” the report adds, “and is caused in large part by the emission of other compounds from the exhausts, tyres, and brakes of motor vehicles."
Meanwhile the UK’s parks and green spaces already provide huge health benefits, researchers have found, and “it is estimated that if everyone in England had good access to greenspace, £2.1 billion in health costs could be saved annually.”
The report concludes: “If decision-makers commit to take urgent, decisive action, we will live healthier lives with cleaner air and more green spaces. It is only through successful global action to reduce emissions we will stop climate change — and we must reduce our emissions as our contribution.”