Climate impacts on health and wellbeing: How is iCASP translating environmental science for resilient decision making?

During the COVID pandemic, it’s easy to lose sight of the impact climate change is already having on the health and wellbeing of people in the UK. Around 2,500 people lost their lives as a result of heatwaves in 2020. We saw the wettest month and individual day last year leading to widespread flooding across the country – costly, disruptive and stressful for all those affected.

Dr Ben Rabb and Dr Jenny Armstrong are Impact Translation Fellows (ITF) with iCASP – they recently worked with Bianca van Bavel from The Priestley Centre to contribute to a Climate Coalition report on the impact of climate change on health in the UK. Below is an extract from iCASP’s contribution to the Climate Coalition report.

2020 – another year of extreme weather

It was the joint hottest year on record globally and the 3rd warmest year on record in the UK. Winter 2019 – 2020 was particularly warm and wet, with three named storms causing widespread flooding damage and disruption. Storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge contributed to the wettest February on record.

England had its driest May on record and the sunniest spring with water shortages becoming a concern. Summer was more unsettled – some areas received well above average rainfall replenishing river levels and reservoirs. Three heatwaves occurred in June and August notable for particularly warm temperatures at night. These conditions used to be rare in the UK and are particularly harmful to health.  Autumn saw the wettest day on record on Saturday, October 3rd – with widespread heavy rain following Storm Alex.

Soaring temperatures 

2,556 deaths occurred as a result of the heatwaves in 2020 – nearly three times as many as from events in 2019 and 2018. These deadly events are made more likely due to climate change – heatwaves in the UK in 2018 were made 30 times more likely due to man‐made greenhouse gas emissions. 

City dwellers are more exposed to extreme heat due to the Urban Heat Island effect (UHI) – caused by buildings, narrow roads, reduced vegetation, air pollution, traffic, domestic energy use and industrial processes. Temperatures can be up to 5°C warmer than surrounding areas which is most pronounced at night when the impact of heat on health and wellbeing is greatest. 

Average and extreme temperatures in the UK are rising. If global emissions continue temperatures in cities could increase by up to 0.45 to 0.81°C per decade between now and 2080. Risks to health include heat stroke, stress and exhaustion; dehydration; acute kidney injury; deteriorating heart disease and death. People over the age of 65 and those with chronic diseases or health conditions are particularly vulnerable – and this is growing due to an ageing population and poor health. In the UK, heat-related mortality in persons older than 65 years increased by 21 per cent between 2004 and 2018.

Increasing flood risk 

An increase in the impact of flooding is the number one climate risk in the UK. Around 1.8 million people are living in areas at significant risk of flooding – this could rise by over 40 percent to 2.6 million by the 2050s. More frequent and extreme flood events in the UK are having an impact on our physical health –  deaths from drowning, injuries, vector-borne and water-borne diseases, as well as mental health associated with experiences of trauma, disruption, and displacement. 

How iCASP is responding

Managing risks posed by extreme temperatures will require holistic responses and new plans from sectors beyond health such as transport, energy, water, food, agriculture, building and infrastructure. Dr Rabb is also an ITF for the iCASP project – Environmental Science for Health & Wellbeing in the Climate Emergency (E.SHAWE)

which is merging climate hazard information with local public health, transport, flood risk and other data to aid cross-sector decision making at local authorities in partnership with Public Health England and Leeds City Council.