In the chilly, rainy United Kingdom, relatively few people die heat-related deaths—around 2,000 annually. But according to a new study, if climate change progresses as predicted and the United Kingdom prepare for warmer weather, deaths due to heat might increase by up to 257 percent over the next 40 years.
Those losses would predominantly claim the elderly, the researchers found, who are more sensitive to hot weather (as demonstrated by the high number of elderly victims in the 2003 heat wave in France, for example). Medical News Today reports on how the researchers arrived at this conclusion:
The investigators analyzed the fluctuation of weather patterns and death rates in the UK between 1993 and 2006. This information was used to determine the link between temperature and mortality by age group and region.
Using predicted daily average temperatures from the British Atmospheric Data Center (BADC) for the years 2000-09, 2020-29, 2050-59 and 2080-89, and population growth estimates for these periods from the Office of National Statistics, the researchers estimated the future number of deaths likely to be caused by hot and cold temperatures.
The number of deaths caused by the cold—currently 41,000 annually—would decrease by 2 percent—by 820 deaths, not enough to offset the increase in heat-related deaths.
This stacks up with the 2007 Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change's high-confidence prediction that climate change will "bring some benefits to health, including fewer deaths from cold, although it is expected that these will be outweighed by the negative effects of rising temperatures worldwide, especially in developing countries."
Compared to some countries, Americans might have a slight edge in battling the heat. One study found that more than 150,000 Americans could lose thier lives to heat by the end of this century. Another predicted that an average of 2,000 people would die per year in the eastern U.S., starting in 2057. And still another found that deaths caused by heat in Manhattan alone might increase by 20 percent over the next decade. But two-thirds of all U.S. homes have air conditioners, and according to some sources the U.S. uses more air conditioning than all other countries combined.
The report on U.K. deaths suggests tha the heat victim figures could be reduced, if elderly people moved into facilities with air conditioning or were otherwise kept cool, too. This is a double-edge sword: while cranking up the AC might prevent deaths, year-round controlled indoor environment is also a driver of the underlying climate problem. Air conditioning accounts for 20 percent of U.S. homes' electricity consumption, and 5 percent of all electricity consumed in the country, releasing 100 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.
As the authors of the U.K. study wrote on Medical News Today, "passive cooling options (i.e. building orientation, shading, thermal insulation, choice of construction materials)...may be equally effective in reducing heat stress, and would be more environmentally sustainable." If the U.S. could be weaned off AC during the less scorching days that account for most of the year, that could help lessen the blow of the coming heat waves, to begin with.