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Built Environment, Energy & Climate Change, Management & Regulation

Heatwaves: A Silent Assassin

We need to manage heat risk like we manage flood risk, argues CIWEM Director of Policy Alastair Chisholm

In recent years it’s seemed like local surface water flooding from summer deluges has been the most common manifestation of extreme summer weather, rather than heatwaves. This year, not so. Rather, in the UK we’ve experienced a long, dry, “barbeque” summer of the kind the Met Office used to periodically forecast to apparently trigger Murphy’s Law and ensure a washout. Since they stopped doing seasonal forecasts it seems the weather’s improving. Not that I’m superstitious or anything.

The problem is, whilst it’s (largely) nice to ‘staycation’ and bask in endless days of cloudless blue, for many (farmers in particular) the lengthy dry spell is becoming a big problem and for others (city dwellers, the elderly and very young in particular), heatwave events are at best uncomfortable, potentially impacting on productivity and at worst, life threatening.

Heatwaves are getting more frequent

With exquisite timing, on one of the hottest days of the year, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published its report on Heatwaves: Adapting to Climate Change. As it turns out, whilst flooding does seem to have been the more common form of extreme weather in the UK (the past 10 years have been wetter by 8% on average, with rainfall in summer up 20% whilst sea levels have risen by 16cm since the start of the 20th Century), there have been heatwave events in 2003, 2006, 2013, 2015, three times in 2016, 2017 and, at the time of writing, at least twice in 2018.

There’s no official definition of what constitutes a heatwave in the UK, but the Met Office refers to the World Meteorological Organization definition “A marked unusual hot weather (Max, Min and daily average) over a region persisting at least two consecutive days during the hot period of the year…” The hot period of the year is 1st June-15th September and 5oC above the average maximum temperature appears to constitute unusual.

The risk of heatwaves is increasing and writ large in the Climate Change Risk Assessment. Looking elsewhere in the world this shouldn’t come as a surprise with temperature records broken and wildfires raging through Arctic Circle Sweden, Portugal, Greece and, of course, California. The annual average temperature has been 0.8oC higher in the last 10 years than in the 1961-1990 period. Extreme temperature events are ten times more likely to occur now than in the early 2000s. That’s just 15 years or so ago.

In the heatwave of 2003, there were 2193 heat-related deaths in the UK and more than 20,000 across Europe. The Office of National Statistics says that in the seven weeks to 20th July 2018, preliminary data indicates more than 990 additional deaths might have occurred due to heat. Annual heat related deaths could average 7000 by 2040. Even at current temperatures, 1 in 5 buildings in the UK overheats.

But the Committee on Climate Change told the EAC something shocking: In surveys undertaken by Defra, only 10% of people thought it is warmer now than it was 20 years ago. And despite public awareness and concern about climate change apparently growing, only 29% of those surveyed thought it would be likely to get warmer in future. Indeed, a greater proportion expected the future to be a cooler one.

Too few people understand flood risk, but even fewer understand heat risk

Though too few people at flood risk actually know this, generally speaking in the UK we are familiar with the sight of floods, of the disruption and devastation they cause to peoples’ lives and of the potentially large economic damage they can wreak. National reviews (such as the Pitt Review and the National Flood Resilience Review) have been undertaken after major flood events. Yet mercifully few people have lost their lives in floods over the past decade or so. And the public seem to have an understanding that the incidence of flood-bearing storms (perhaps because of the Met Office’s approach of naming them) is on the rise.

Flooding is well planned for. Forecasting, early warning and advice lines are well-established and work well. There is a well-honed risk-based approach to protecting lives, property and land. For all the perennial concerns over complexity of responsibility, lack of awareness and available funding, flood risk is something that the UK is internationally regarded as being good at managing.

Of the major climate change risks, heat appears to be the silent assassin. Less visible, less subject to the political grandstanding of emergency relief funds than flooding. Like cold, it affects the frail and isolated. In the 2003 heatwave, most impacted were over 75 years old and most lived alone.

Are we adapting to heat risk?

This summer has hopefully re-focused UK attention not only on how our climate is warming (16 of the warmest 17 years have occurred since 2000). But, how well are we preparing for what lies before us, assuming such trends continue and summers such as these become a new normal past the middle of the Century?

“Woefully”, according to EAC Chair Mary Creagh MP, who says that Government is failing to take sufficient heed of advice by the Committee on Climate Change. Interestingly the Government’s National Adaptation Programme (NAP) was published a week before the EAC report and the two make instructive parallel reading.

The NAP followed the Climate Change Risk Assessment’s advice and identified high temperatures as a major risk for attention over the coming five years, at the top of the pile alongside flood risk to business and communities. On heat, the NAP sets out a range of activities, ranging from the updated National Planning Policy Framework requiring plans to be proactive on climate change adaptation including overheating, to the 25 Year Environment Plan goal to deliver more green infrastructure. It signposts the importance of improving building design and construction, and ongoing research on the effectiveness of techniques to manage overheating. It highlights the overheating risks in new and existing homes, hospitals, care homes, schools, prisons and offices and the Heatwave Plan for England, published since 2014 and currently being evaluated, which is intended to raise awareness of heatwave risk and management amongst the public and organisations.

Public Health England, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), NHS England, the Local Government Association, Local Authorities and Mayoral Combined Authorities are identified as the major deliverers of progress on these fronts.

A lack of coordination

At the root of the MPs’ criticism of progress appears to be a combination of buck-passing, de-prioritisation and siloed working within government at all levels, completely counter to the Government’s own evidence to the inquiry which recognised the importance of a coordinated approach. EAC said “responsibility for coordinating action on heatwaves across departments remains ambiguous, allowing heat-health risks to fall between departmental cracks.”

For example, EAC state that whilst the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is responsible for delivering the Climate Change Risk Assessment and NAP, DHSC has overall responsibility for heatwaves. It expressed concern that despite building and urban overheating being at the heart of the health impacts of heatwaves, the Public Health Minister did not consider it his department’s responsibility to take active steps to address these issues (this being the responsibility, presumably, of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government). And local authorities, on the front line in driving adaptation measures on the ground, have no bespoke work plan for climate change adaptation and 90% of staff in a 2013 survey considered that climate change adaptation had been de-prioritised in their area. Lord Deben, Chair of the Committee on Climate Change summed up the situation as “Government does not think of these things, except in a siloed way.”

This is a familiar criticism of Government and not a surprising one (it’s been heard in relation to flood risk management plenty of times before). Such challenges are multifaceted and complex to address, but clearly when projections for increase in heatwave risk are so significant, improving coordination amongst departments must become a focus for real attention.

Recently CIWEM highlighted the importance that the second NAP must be a vehicle for achieving this kind of concerted approach to adaptation. We expressed concern at the first incarnation being more of a record of current activities, rather than a vehicle for enhancing performance against the prioritised risks. Unfortunately, those concerns remain after the second NAP.

Later this year the updated UK Climate Projections will be published. These will shed yet more light on the kind of climate the UK will be facing towards the end of the century. Heatwave risk has changed dramatically since 2000. Progress in addressing it must be equally as rapid. And perhaps lessons could be learned from how flooding – once a significant killer – is now forecast, planned for, warned about and responded to in an increasingly coordinated way.

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