UK must ‘heat-proof’ itself against rising temperatures amid warning thousands could die this summer

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 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

The UK must “up the game” in making homes, buildings and cities more resilient to future heat waves, leading scientists have said, amid warnings that thousands of people could die this summer.

Temperatures are expected to soar into the high 30s in areas of England on Monday, while Tuesday is predicted to be even hotter, potentially reaching 40C, according to forecasts. In response, the UK Health Security Agency has issued a level 4 heat-health alert.

Leading experts have said that this intense summer heat will only become more common in the near future, endangering lives and bringing parts of the UK to a halt. More must be done to ‘heat-proof’ the country, which is “not built for 40C,” the scientists say.

“This heat wave is telling us, along with the evidence developed over years, is that we really need to up the game in terms of adaptation and resilience in the UK and in other countries,” said Nigel Arnell, a professor of climate system science at the University of Reading.

Professor Hannah Cloke, a natural hazards researcher at the University of Reading, said “severe heat waves are a problem that’s not going away — and they will get worse.”

She added: “We can no longer tolerate poor design of our buildings and our cities, and we urgently need to think about things like reducing overheating, shading, trees, building for cooling, and providing these public cooling spaces … because we’re not prepared and we’re not built for 40 degrees.”

Over the past decade, 2,000 deaths have been reported each year during England’s heatwave episodes, according to research from Dr Eunice Lo, a climate scientist at the University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment.

She said “we don’t know what the mortality outcome is going to be exactly” for the current heatwave, “but we know the risk is high,” adding that “even the fit and healthy people” will be vulnerable.

“We do need to be aware and take precautions and definitely not view this as a normal summer day or something to go out and have fun with,” Dr Lo said.

Mike Tipton, a professor of human and applied physiology at the University of Portsmouth, said that 80 to 90 per cent of deaths associated with heat waves are reported in over-65s.

He said these deaths “are primarily related to cardiovascular problems” and that an increase in mortality rates begins “around an air temperature of 25C or 26C”.

The scientists, speaking during a media briefing on Monday, listed a number of measures that homeowners could adopt to bring down temperatures during heatwaves. This included growing trees, fitting vegetation on walls and installing window shutters on the outside of the building, as seen in Europe.

They urged local authorities to open public air conditioned spaces, such as in churches which take longer to heat up during high temperatures, that can be used by people “if they get to a state where they cannot stay cool in their own homes or in their place of work”.

And the experts said more thought needs to be given to how cities can be made more “blue or green” to reduce temperatures.

“Some of the most simple things that we can think about is the use of shade,” said Prof Cloke. “It makes a massive difference. I know that walking into university this morning, walking through an avenue of trees, it’s at least 10C cooler than it is out in the sun.

“If you go into a city that’s designed properly, and it’s got it’s got these things and the buildings are moving in the right direction to provide that type of shading, it can make an enormous difference.

“There are things to do with insulation. There are things to do with not having those these horrible tiny apartments right on the top of buildings that heat up.

“This idea of trying to blue or green the city can make a gigantic difference.”

UK news in pictures

Prof Tipton nodded towards the Tivoli gardens in Rome. “They built Tivoli gardens, which is full of trees, water, water sprays, pretty much exactly, as far as I understand it, along very similar lines to that which we’re proposing now,” he said.

“So the answer has been there for at least 2,000 years, it’s just that we haven’t had the stimulus to change.”

Prof Arnell said everyone bares responsibility for making the country’s cities, towns and homes more liveable during extreme heat.

“Adaptation, resilience is spread amongst so many different users and stakeholders. No one organisation has got responsibility. It’s a devolved matter. We really need to get some coordination and some priority given to adaptation,” he said.

The pleas to take action come as the UN secretary general warned that the humanity is facing “collective suicide” if it fails to respond to the escalating climate crisis, evidenced in a series of wildfires and heatwaves that are wreaking havoc across multiple countries and continents.

“Half of humanity is in the danger zone, from floods, droughts, extreme storms and wildfires,” António Guterres told ministers from 40 countries in a UN meeting on Monday. “No nation is immune. Yet we continue to feed our fossil fuel addiction.

“We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands.”

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