#PlanetPartners: Health of more than 12 million in UK vulnerable to climate change
05 February 2021
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, according to a new report from The Climate Coalition and the Priestley International Centre for Climate.
The report, which included contributions from academics at the University of Reading, reveals that millions in the UK are vulnerable to heatwaves and major flood events, made more likely by climate change.
The report finds that approximately 1.8 million people in the UK are living in areas at significant risk of flooding - a number which could increase to 2.6 million in as little as 17 years. Just under 12 million people in the UK are also dangerously vulnerable to future summer heatwaves, particularly the elderly or people with pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. In the UK, heat related mortality in persons older than 65 years increased by 21% between 2004 and 2018.
In 2020, the UK experienced 16 ‘tropical nights' where the temperature remained above 20C - previously rare but harmful conditions in the UK.
Globally, the damaging impacts of the climate crisis are only increasing. Here in the UK, just weeks ago 167 flood warnings were issued across England and Wales in the wake of Storm Christoph. The series of UK heatwaves in 2018 were made 30 times more likely by climate change, and led to 8,500 heat-related deaths in the UK.
Elizabeth Robinson, Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Reading, who contributed to the research, said:
"The UK is, perhaps surprisingly, particularly vulnerable to extremes of heat. This is predominantly due to the proportion of people with certain pre-existing conditions, demographics, and the high rate of urbanisation and low rate of air conditioning."
The devastating impact of flooding is one of the UK's biggest climate threats. As well as the immediate risk of death and injury, floods are also deeply traumatic for those affected, leading to a heightened risk of mental health issues.
Almost 1 in 3 people have reported suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after having their house flooded. And overall, flood victims have been found to be as much as four times more likely, on average, to suffer mental health issues including depression, anxiety or PTSD than those unaffected by flooding.
The report from the Climate Coalition, whose members include National Trust, WWF, Women's Institute, Oxfam and RSPB, says the severe health issues related to the climate and nature crisis are a reminder of the need to rapidly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and reach a zero carbon economy.
It says tackling climate change will bring co-benefits for our health including cleaner air, improved wellbeing, and a reduction in the pressure being placed on the NHS. For example: if 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%. In England, 56% of car journeys are under 5 miles.
Scarlett McNally, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, and Council Member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, 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."
Clara Goldsmith, Campaigns Director at The Climate Coalition said:
"Failure to with speed and scale to address the climate and ecological crises will spell disaster not only for our natural world, but for public health. Governments must urgently recognise the threat posed by climate change and set the recovery on a green pathway that enshrines planetary and public health above all else."
Tanya Steele, Chief Executive at WWF, said:
"Our mental and physical health are clearly linked to the health of the one place we all call home: our planet. Yet right now, nature - our life support system - is in freefall, and the climate crisis is making blazing heatwaves and major flood events more frequent and more likely.
To show true global leadership at this year's climate summit, the UK Government must take more ambitious steps to reach our net zero targets and put nature on the path to recovery."