- Global temperatures are estimated to have already increased by 1.0°C above pre-industrial levels. There is a high degree of probability that global temperatures will reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052 if the current warming rate continues. Even if global warming were stopped today, the repercussions of warming to date will continue to be felt for centuries or even millennia to come, for example in sea levels rising. The risks posed by these changes will be different across different areas and are dependent on the pace and extent of global warming as well as the adaptation and mitigation measures taken now.
- Entire ecosystems will be transformed by global warming. If global warming reaches 2°C above pre-industrial levels, approximately 13% of the world’s land areas is predicted to change into entirely different ecosystems.
- Heat- and ozone-associated morbidity and mortality is expected to increase with global warming – in the UK, heat-related deaths could increase threefold by the 2050s. Warmer temperatures could in turn lead to a higher prevalence of vector-borne diseases (i.e. diseases caused by parasites, viruses and bacteria that are transmitted by vectors, e.g. bloodsucking insects) in the UK.
- Rising sea levels and shorter, more intensive periods of precipitation in summer could all mean increased flooding. Around 1.9 million people in the UK currently live in areas at risk of significant flooding – this number could double by the 2050s.
- Pressures on water supply in the UK are forecasted to rise in response to changes in the atmosphere, increased agricultural emissions and the use of cooling technologies to offset temperature rises. Public water supplies could need more than 3.4 billion additional litres of water by 2050 if no adaptation measures are taken now.
- Food prices could rise by 20% if global warming continues at the current pace, limiting equitable access to nutritious and affordable food.
- Despite the significant risks ahead of us, adaptation measures taken now to reduce the vulnerability of our communities and habitats can reduce the impacts of climate change on our ecosystems and population health.
What is the impact of climate on this area?
- Communities across the UK will be impacted by climate-related changes, though in differing ways. The highest burden of flooding risks and rising sea levels will likely be felt in England, however the per capita economic impacts will be felt more in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Heatwaves have tended to affect London consistently in recent years, likely compounded by its infrastructure and air quality. In-land communities may not be as immediately affected by rising temperatures or sea levels but will still feel the indirect consequences on the UK’s infrastructure, food supply chains, natural resource and strains on the national healthcare systems.
- Natural habitats have already been significantly depleted by centuries of global warming and industrialisation in the UK: 90% of wetland habitats have been lost over the last century and 66% of existing species today are in decline. Warmer climates can also lead to invasive species proliferating, leading to financial loss and damage to already fragile ecosystems.
Who/what is at risk?
- Communities on floodplains or coastal areas are some of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Currently, 4 million people and assets worth £200 billion are at risk of flooding from sea or rivers in England. It is estimated that the number of properties on English floodplains will increase almost twofold, to 4.6 million, by 2065.
- It is likely that economically-disadvantaged communities will be disproportionately affected by changes to the climate. Existing inequalities in health could be exacerbated by global warming, for instance if measures to reduce air pollution are less successful. Lack of equal access to ‘green’ projects across communities could mean that climate adaptation measures replicate existing societal inequalities and become the reserve of the financially wealthy.
- Young people will experience far more climate disasters than previous generations, showing there is a dimension of intergenerational inequality to climate change.
What actions need to be taken to minimise the risk?
- Adequate health protection strategies need to be implemented to minimise risks from rising temperatures, including heat alerts, emergency planning and capacity building as well as effective and incentivised retrofitting of buildings to address overheating.
- Flood risk management must involve preparation, response and recovery planning. Local governments are well placed to take forward projects to equip their communities against these risks but must be adequately funded to do so. Natural or nature-based infrastructure (NNBI) is increasingly being considered to increase flood resilience while enhancing biodiversity and water quality as well as potentially improving public health and wellbeing through the creation of ‘green spaces’.
- Guaranteeing a safe and clean water supply will become increasingly harder as the climate changes. While measures to adapt water supply systems to protect against contamination and supply interruption are underway in the UK, these must be accelerated.
- Research into the communities most at risk from rising sea levels and changing coastlines must be conducted across the UK, to identify those most vulnerable and ensure interventions are enacted wherever possible to prevent existential threats to communities.
- Industrial regulation must keep pace with the changing climate. While standards for new homes are incentivising the building of more resilient infrastructure, more action is needed to incentivise existing homes to be retrofitted to meet changing regulations.
- Prioritise the restoration and enhancement of biodiverse ecosystems across the UK, including wetlands.
- Prepare for an increase in adverse environmental incidents and educate and equip communities to respond to and recover from these. This includes building warning systems, defences and reserve supplies/measures.
- The healthcare system should expect an increase in vector-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease and mosquito-transmitted diseases, and resources should be dedicated to preparing for this.
- National policies on food security and supply chain management are needed to ensure the UK is prepared for changes to the cost and availability of food as well as the potential increase in incidents of bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae and parasites spreading owing to higher temperatures. Particular concern should be given to ensuring equitable access to nutritious food continues across the UK.
- The healthcare system must adapt now to increase the resilience of its infrastructure to flooding, overheating and other strains caused by climate changes. Capacity in the healthcare system may be exacerbated by global warming so, given the existing pressures on the system from COVID-19, capacity-building and workforce development could help adaptation.
- Mitigation measures to achieve Net Zero can complement adaptation measures and bring co-benefits to population health and wellbeing. Greater synergy between mitigation and adaptation – as well as consideration of where they may conflict with one another – should be pursued at both national and local levels.
- Individual-level behavioural changes will be required to adapt diet and travel patterns and increase uptake of low- or zero-carbon technology. A wealth of behavioural science research exists which must be harnessed to encourage communities to adapt to climate change at the individual level.
- Climate equity and climate justice should be central to the UK’s adaptation strategy. In other words, communities elsewhere in the world who are more immediately vulnerable to the effects of climate change should be supported by major emitters, such as the UK, and not be made to bear the brunt of the crisis they played less of a part in. Funding of adaptation measures to build resilience and capacity in these communities must complement any domestic programme.
Our recent experiences of the changing climate have shown that, instead of perpetuating systems based on economic growth at the cost of everything else, the focus must shift to quality of life, community bonds and our relationship with nature. Quality of life should not be measured by GDP – this practice is illustrative of the misguided priorities we have been pursuing for the last two hundred years – but, rather, should consider a holistic understanding of health, environment and natural resource systems. Public health has a unique appreciation of the interconnectedness of health and the built environment. Applying this insight and expertise to climate change adaptation must now be a core focus for the public health profession and the wider healthcare system. It is clear that our health is intertwined with our ecosystem – our challenge now will be to adapt rapidly enough to mitigate as much of the damage as we can, while continuing to work to protect, improve and care for the health of our populations.