Heat Waves Could Triple Premature Deaths In Britain By 2050

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Sunset in London during the summer time.

According to Britain’s Committee on Climate Change, premature deaths in the country from heat waves could triple to 7,000 per year by the 2050s. The problem is particularly acute for about one-fifth of Britain’s domestic residences, and as much as 90 percent of its hospitals, all of which are ill-equipped to handle the heat.

“Exposure to heat is already an issue for health,” the Committee warned. “Types of hospital ward that are vulnerable to overheating currently make up 90 percent of the total stock [by floorspace].”

The Committee was unequivocal in its assessment that “overheating in hospitals is a serious issue given the vulnerability of patients.”

The Committee warned that heat waves like the August 2003 event that killed 35,000 people across Europe could become the new normal as climate change continues apace. For its numbers on hospitals specifically, the Committee drew on new research about to be released by Cambridge University, which shows that temperatures in some British wards are already ticking past 30°C (86°F) when the heat outside reaches 22°C (71.6°F). Sleep is interrupted at just 26°C, and 28°C is the threshold at which heat is usually considered uncomfortable.

According to Professor Alan Short, who authored the Cambridge research, the worst offending hospitals are “very lightweight 1960s buildings,” with lots of windows to let in sunlight, often facing south, with high occupancy rates and thin walls. Perversely, hospital health and safety rules are also adding to the problem, as they don’t “allow any windows to be opened by more than four inches” and thus prevent proper ventilation, Short continued.

Lord Krebs of the Committee on Climate Change said that possible solutions include “tinted windows, awnings to prevent sun coming in, painting the outside of buildings white, a range of passive cooling measures [and] better ventilation.” Both Short and Krebs did not call for increasing installation of air conditioning because the uptick in electricity demand would itself contribute to the climate change that’s pushing along the heat waves. It was an unfortunate twist further highlighting Britain’s failure to move fast enough to get its electrical system off of fossil fuels like coal, and onto renewables.

Over here in the United States, a new climate report released in recent weeks showed that the average number of days over 95°F will double or triple by 2050. By 2100 the number could quadruple, and by 2200 the eastern half of the country could start seeing days in which it is literally too hot and humid for human beings to safely be outdoors.

And even when such conditions are not life-threatening, they make it difficult for any activity to occur outdoors. As a result, the increased heat has roughly a two-thirds chance of cutting American labor productivity by two percent by 2100. (For comparison, the economic crisis in Greece following the 2008 recession cut that country’s labor productivity by less than one percent.) Dealing with that heat will also increase the strain on the US electrical grid, driving up the average per person cost of utility bills as much as $287 each year — and possibly much more under the less likely scenarios.

Nor would that burned be equally distributed: both the hits to labor productivity and the increases in energy prices would fall much harder on the poorest ten percent of counties in the country.