Scientists react to the UKHSA Health Effects of Climate Change report.
Prof Rosemary Green, Professor of Environment, Food and Health, and Co-Director of the Centre on Climate Change and Planetary Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), who contributed to the report, said:
“In the UK we are used to being able to find foods from all over the world in our shops at any time of year, but climate change is going to make that an increasingly difficult prospect. For the first time, the food supply chapter of the new HECC report explores the vulnerability to climate change of the places where we source our food, and the potential impacts of supply shortfalls for our health. It finds that the UK’s supply of healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables is particularly at risk because nearly 80% of these foods are imported, often from countries highly vulnerable to climate change.
“If healthy foods become harder to obtain or more expensive due to climate change, people will increasingly choose cheaper and less perishable foods that are likely to be worse for their health. It will be vital for the UK to invest in climate-resilient food production in the countries where we source our food, as well as supporting production at home for healthy foods that can be grown in the UK.
“This new HECC report outlining the risks to health in the UK from climate change comes at a time when the spotlight is on the UK as a wealthy nation to lead the way in its response to the climate crisis. The results show that there are substantial risks from climate change in the UK, including through air pollution, extreme weather events, the food supply and infectious disease risk. However, the report also indicates a number of positive benefits to health that could be achieved if we take action to adapt to these risks and to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. We now need to start taking ambitious actions to safeguard our health under a changing climate.”
Prof Barbara Evans, Chair in Public Health Engineering at the University of Leeds, said:
“The negative health effects of climate change will not be static or one-off but will increase exponentially as changing weather patterns drive repeated chronic and catastrophic failures of systems we have long taken for granted. Our water resources infrastructure (dams), water supply services and sewer systems are all highly vulnerable. As weather becomes more extreme, these systems start to fail more often, ratcheting up health impacts. The challenge of delivering resilient services will only get bigger, and failures will become more frequent. Our infrastructure is aging and we would have to take some really bold steps to build new resilient interconnected systems that can protect health in the long term.
Dr Katie Manning, Lecturer in Climate Change, Business, and Society at King’s College London, said:
“This report sets out the glaring reality of today’s climate crisis. We are dealing with systems-wide impacts, not only to our economy, but also to our health and wellbeing. Despite world leaders committing to keeping the 1.5C target alive, this year will be the hottest on record with greenhouse gas emissions rising yet again. New data shows the Arctic is warming at an alarming rate of nearly four times faster than the rest of the world. So, it is no longer alarmist to be considering the worst-case scenario. We now need action. Unless we see an immediate phasing out of fossil fuels and start prioritising sustainability over profit, then the health impacts outlined in this report are inevitable.”
Prof Nigel Arnell, Professor of Climate Change Science, University of Reading, said:
“The summary of the HECC report presents a clear overview of the potential effects of climate change on health and health inequalities in the UK – and highlights what needs to be done to reduce these impacts. Projections of future impacts must be based on projections of how climate might change, which of course depends on actions taken to reduce future emissions.
“The HECC report rightly looks at a ‘worst-case’ where global temperatures increase to 4 degrees or more above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century as part of its analysis: it doesn’t imply that this is the most likely outcome. Whilst we clearly hope temperatures won’t get that far, it is prudent to prepare for the worst case when planning health resources if the consequences of us underestimating the risk are so significant: COVID-19 showed us how important it is to think about worst-case scenarios.
“It’s also worth pointing out that the difference between a worst-case / high emissions scenario and a scenario assuming lower rates of temperature change is not very large up to the 2050s. This is because much change to then is already baked in, and even by 2050 the range due to uncertainties in estimating exactly how global emissions changes affect UK climate is large compared to the difference between emissions. The ‘top end’ estimate of health impacts by 2050 will likely be only slightly higher with a high emissions scenario than a lower emissions scenario. But the differences will be very large by the end of the century, so it is really important that we start reducing emissions as soon as possible.”
Dr Chloe Brimicombe, Climate Scientist and Extreme Heat Researcher at the University of Graz, said:
“This report shares a stark look at a worst-case scenario of how unhealthy the future could become in the UK.
“It is unlikely that 4’C will be reached, but we should use this report as a positive reminder of building a net zero future that can have positive impacts on our health, for example reducing air pollution and insulating houses to reduce emissions and overheating.
“It is scary to imagine a world where mosquitoes reach the UK, but it doesn’t have to be, when we have the ambition to act on climate change we can protect ours and future generations health.
“It is important to also say that the physical and mental health of the UK is already impacted by climate change, through things like overheating buildings even affecting newborn babies and repeated flooding causing stress on households. This report is one of many in this space that shows we need policy change and infrastructure investment to support our communities.”
Prof Hugh Montgomery, UCL and Co-Director of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, said:
“The hazards and timescales of impact are likely underestimates. The UK is part of an interconnected global financial and agricultural system. Single events could devastate both, with huge economic impacts and downstream health impacts on the UK even within years. Mass extinction of huge parts of the global ecosystem become ever more likely. We cannot readily ‘adapt’ to impacts such as these.”
Nigel Arnell: I was one of the reviewers of the chapter on climate scenarios
Chloe Brimicombe: I have no conflicts of interest to declare.
Rosemary Green is one of the authors of the report but has no other COIs to flag
No others received