Keeping a cool head about hot weather
Ignore the panicky headlines about a new government report on higher temperatures in Britain - it actually contained good news.
‘Climate change soon could kill thousands in UK’, declared the Guardian in a news item about a new report from two UK health bodies, the Department of Health (DoH) and the Health Protection Agency (HPA). But even a quick glance at the report itself suggests this is a rather misleading summary. In fact, the report suggests that, on balance, a warmer climate will be good news - for the UK, at least.
Health Effects of Climate Change in the UK 2008 is an update on an earlier report published in 2002. It looks at a range of areas that might be affected by rising temperatures: flooding and windstorms; vector-borne diseases like malaria and food-borne diseases like salmonellosis; water quality; the direct effect of temperature on health; air pollution; and sunshine.
The most recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest that the world will continue getting warmer and that human activity plays a major part in this warming trend. The DoH/HPA report supports this view; by the end of the century, average temperatures in the UK may be two degrees Celsius warmer at night and four degrees Celsius warmer during the day. Cold spells will decrease in length while heatwaves will become longer and more intense. Rainfall may decrease in one or two areas, but isn’t likely to change much overall.
Flowing from this general outlook, the report notes:
- Floods will become less frequent in spring but more common in late summer, but few people die in such events and the wider health effects are uncertain;
- Outbreaks of insect-borne diseases will remain rare, and will be as much due to changes in land-use and activity - like spending more time in wooded areas - than climate change;
- Warm summers could increase the risk of food poisoning, so further improvements in food hygiene standards are desirable;
- The quality of untreated water might decline as more bacteria will be present, but this is ‘unlikely to pose a threat to well-managed water treatment plants’;
- Air pollution problems caused by small particles, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide will be unaffected or will fall, but periods of high ground-level ozone will increase deaths and hospital admissions.
So, in most of these areas there is little to worry about. Some potential areas for improvement are identified, which is useful for health professionals, but no cause for the rest of us to be concerned.
Even in the area that the Guardian and others picked up on, the direct effect of temperatures, there is plenty of good news. As the Guardian says, the report suggests that the prospect of a serious heatwave in south-east England - possibly leading to 3,000 deaths - at some time in the next 10 years is about 25 per cent. Hence, the horror headlines.
However, actual experience over nearly 40 years suggests good news overall. For example, ‘mean annual heat-related mortality did not rise as summers warmed from 1971 to 2003’. That means we’re able to adapt to warmer temperatures. Indeed, the authors note: ‘Heat-related mortalities are substantial throughout Europe, but the hot summers in southern Europe cause little more mortality than the milder summers of more northerly regions.’ If we’re prepared for warm weather and we take simple precautions, then heat shouldn’t be a problem.
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So, for different UK regions, the authors estimate the following decline for hot weather-related fatalities (cases per million of population, 1971-2003):
- South-east England from 258 to 193 in 2003;
- Rest of England and Wales from 188 to 93;
- Scotland from 125 (in 1974) to only eight in 2003.
Meanwhile, deaths due to cold weather fell dramatically - overall, by more than 33 per cent. Far more people are affected by cold snaps than by heatwaves, so the change is more significant than for hot-weather deaths. Here is how cold-weather deaths fell between 1971 and 2003:
- South-east England from 9,174 to 5,903;
- Rest of England and Wales from 9,222 to 6,088;
- Scotland from 9,751 in 1974 to 6,166 in 2003.
We should be shouting this from the rooftops: far fewer people are dying because of the temperature than in the past. Milder winters are far more important than hotter summers in achieving this, along with other changes to how people live. Where there have been calamities, like the heatwave deaths in France in 2003, there have been other factors involved. In the case of France, the higher temperatures arrived just when the working population all went on holiday, leaving city-dwelling old people without anyone to keep an eye on them.
If warm weather is that bad, why does it seem to be the dream of every retiring person in Britain to move to the south coast or, better still, Spain or Australia? Unsurprisingly, in a temperate country accustomed to miserable weather, with cold winters and often poor-quality housing, higher temperatures are almost certain to have a net benefit for the UK. Yet this doesn’t fit in with the general atmosphere of climate change alarmism that encloses newspapers like the Guardian. Even the BBC, which is hardly shy about climate alarmism, gave the story a more balanced headline: ‘Global warming “may cut deaths”’.
This report also brings into relief a side of the climate change debate that is under-discussed: the ability of society to adapt to changing weather patterns. A quick glance at the huge variety of human societies shows a capacity to operate successfully in a range of conditions. Bustling Bangkok rarely dips below 30 degrees Celsius while average temperatures in Moscow and Helsinki are in low single digits. Even in a single, very successful city like New York, temperatures can range from the bitterly cold in winter to the blazingly hot in summer. There is little or nothing that climate change can throw at us that we don’t already deal with successfully.
If temperatures do change substantially over the next few decades, there will be some disruption and humanity will need to adapt to new problems, as it has always done. But in spite of all the gloom and doom about global warming, we can chill out about a warmer Britain.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.