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Are risks from heat waves being taken seriously?

The government has shown itself to be switched on to the climate change threats of flooding and energy insecurity. But it is falling behind on another climate risk − the need to adapt the built environment to the risks posed by heatwaves.

Last week saw the landmark Exercise Watermark four-day flood resilience exercise carried out across the country.

But there are no plans for such an exercise to judge the UK’s readiness for heatwaves, which − like flooding − are expected to increase in frequency and intensity as climate change intensifies.

“Global warming” is a term that has fallen out of fashion, but of course the fundamental consequence of climate change is rising temperatures.

“Global warming” is a term that has fallen out of fashion, but of course the fundamental consequence of climate change is rising temperatures.

The prevailing scientific consensus is that global temperatures could rise between 1.1˚C and 6.4 ˚C above 1980-1999 levels, by the end of this century.

Social policy charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and climate change consultancy AEA last month reported that, in the UK, the effects of heatwaves will be worst felt in “urban heat islands” − metropolitan areas that are significantly warmer than their rural surrounds because the materials used in the built environment retain heat, and because energy use also produces so much waste heat.

Higher density living

As the country becomes increasingly urbanised, the urban heat island effect will become more common. The problem could be further exacerbated as population growth and transport decarbonisation increase pressure on planners to create higher density living spaces.

But the threat from heat − and the need to adapt for the effects of heatwaves − is relatively new and poorly understood, because the UK has no history of significant impacts from high temperatures.

The simplest solution to the urban heat island problem is the creation of what is known as “green and blue infrastructure”.

Flooding occurs frequently in this country so it is well understood, says AEA specialist consultant on climate change Magnus Benzie, but heatwaves have been somewhat neglected because people are unused to considering them.

The simplest solution to the urban heat island problem is the creation of what is known as “green and blue infrastructure” in urban developments, where “green” refers to green spaces and plant life, and “blue” refers to bodies of water.

Both reduce temperatures by breaking up the built environment heat-trap, and providing places for people to go to when they need to cool down.

But JRF says green and blue infrastructure will not become a priority unless the government develops a heat strategy to direct long-term heatwave resilience.

No policy framework

The only existing policy framework relating to heat is the Department of Health’s Heatwave Plan, which focuses on responding to a health emergency rather than on developing a long-term strategy to reduce vulnerability to heat stress in the first place.

Implementing a heat strategy would require the government to invest more resources in heatwave planning, JRF says.

If heatwaves are not identified in the Climate Change Risk Assessment as a priority it is unlikely that activity to alleviate their effects will increase.

But whether that will happen depends on the conclusions of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA), which is due to go before Parliament by 26 January 2012.

The CCRA will identify government priorities for climate change adaptation policy. If heatwaves are not identified as a priority it is unlikely that activity to alleviate their effects will increase.

“There’s a certain amount of ‘wait and see’ at the moment,” says Benzie. “There are a lot of expectations on the CCRA. It won’t be able to do everything.”

But the later the government acts on heatwave planning, the more likely it is to waste money on unsuitable development − especially as the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s Green Deal is emphasing energy efficiency through insulation.

Green Deal worries

“You need to start thinking about heat now, because a lot of the decisions you make will have a long legacy,” says Committee on Climate Change adaptation head Sebastian Catovsky.

“The Green Deal is absolutely critical. Certain kinds of insulation could mean that the building heats up too much in the summer.”

And with possible consequences of heat stress ranging from serious health problems to subsidence caused by soil drying and communications risks from computer server rooms overheating, neglecting to plan for heatwaves could be more disastrous than it seems.

Readers' comments (3)

  • In this article I am distressed to see it reported that the prevailing scientific consensus is that could rise between 1.1deg C and 6.4 deg C above 1980 to 1999 levels by the end of the century. The lower figure may be about right, but no credible scientist has claimed anything like the upper figure. The Institution and the NCE should not be seen to be even flirting with the possibilty that this figure is right.

    Actions by urban authorities, or others, on the basis of this figure or anything near it will divert large amounts of funds inro wasteful expenditure and impoverish people who would otherwise be helped.

    At the very least the article should have qualified the figures with a comment upon the reliability of the figures.

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  • See

    IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working
    Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

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  • Hello Paul,

    thank you for your comment. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report referred to in Peter Hepton's comment was indeed the source for this figure (see the table on page 13). It puts 6.4°C as the highest possibility in the range of "likely" temperature rises based on the A1FI scenario which -- as I understand it -- looks at a potential future world that continues to be reliant on fossil fuels. By that token I think it is fair to say that it is thought to be something that "could" happen, although I'm always open to being corrected.

    Many thanks,

    Jo Stimpson

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