The climate crisis poses a “significant and growing threat” to UK health, the country’s top public health expert has warned.
Speaking to the Guardian, Prof Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK’s Health Security Agency, said there was a common misconception that a warmer climate would bring net health benefits due to milder winters. But a climate emergency would bring far wider health consequences, she said, with threats to food security, flooding and mosquito-borne diseases.
“The heat wave this summer really took a direct toll on people,” Harris said. “But that’s the breadth of influence.” It’s not just the heat.”
Referring to the recent floods in Pakistan, Harris said the UK needed to build resilience to protect the population from the health impacts of extreme weather.
“Colleagues from Pakistan… are suffering from the consequences of the floods. “They are dealing with standing water, a greater risk of sewage overflowing into publicly accessible water spaces,” she said. “We are seeing some of the things that could happen in the UK.”
The aim is not to paint a “doom and gloom scenario”, she added, but to identify threats that the UK could prepare for.
Speaking at the UKHSA annual conference in Leeds this week, Harris launched the Center for Climate and Health Security. She argued that the health threat should be considered as part of the UK’s wider climate policy, including a commitment to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Even with action to limit climate change, “there’s a built-in element of temperature progress that we can’t control,” she said, and that would require adaptation to protect health.
This summer, the UK experienced record temperatures of 40.3C and six separate periods of heatwaves linked to more than 2,800 deaths. “If a couple of planes had blown up and we’d lost that many people, it would have been front-page news in terms of health care,” Harris said.
Heat-related deaths are projected to triple by 2050, with the hottest summers we’ve seen in recent years becoming simply “normal” summers. “It’s a fairly short-term risk and that’s why it’s a priority for us,” she said. “There are things we can do about it, so we need to act.”
Unlike warmer European neighbours, such as Spain or Italy, the UK’s infrastructure is not designed to allow people to live and work in such conditions. “[Hot] European countries will routinely have air conditioning, they will have stone floors that keep buildings cool. We don’t have that in the UK,” Harris said. “There is an absolute need to think about what our buildings are like in the future.”
Lifestyle adjustments such as going outside in the middle of the day during the summer and longer summer vacations for schools could also play a role in the future, she said.
“We have a lot to learn from countries that are experiencing warmer temperatures right now,” she said. “If we’re going to be a hot country soon, we have to think the same way.”
Viewed purely in terms of annual excess deaths, the climate crisis is likely to have a temporary benefit in the UK due to warmer winters, Harris said. But other factors could soon reverse this trend. As temperatures rise, Europe becomes susceptible to infectious diseases historically seen in the tropics. The Asian tiger mosquito, which transmits dengue and chikungunya, is now established in southern Europe, with France experiencing its worst outbreak of dengue this year, which mosquitoes can only transmit effectively when average temperatures rise above 28 degrees.
“In France, they had cases of infectious diseases that you would normally see in a tropical climate, and the vector went all the way to Paris,” Harris said. “We are beginning to witness the progression of this influence in European countries.”
In Great Britain, Asian tiger mosquito eggs have been discovered in the south-east and Culek modestus The mosquito, which can transmit West Nile virus, is present in parts of Kent and Essex. “We have already stepped up [our surveillance programme]but it’s one of those areas where we have to raise the flag and build capacity up front,” she said.