smog at sunset

Three ways heat impacts our lives

Due to the climate crisis, we’re experiencing the impacts of high temperatures all over the UK. Find out about the consequences of this extreme weather.
  Published:  15 Jul 2022    |      Last updated:  08 Dec 2023    |      2 minute read

There’s often a mixed reaction to hot weather, with some enjoying it and others expressing their discomfort. But irrespective of how we feel personally, temperatures in the 30s aren’t natural for the UK.

July 2022 was the hottest on record, reaching a whopping 40.3°C. The Met Office issued its first ever red warning for extreme heat in many parts of England, where "illness and death may occur among the fit and healthy and not just in high-risk groups."

With such stifling weather rapidly becoming the norm, we look at just some of the ways heat impacts lives in the UK.

Rising temperatures on our planet are caused by a build up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

Greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – and by cutting down forests.

The gases trap heat by forming a blanket around the Earth – like the glass of a greenhouse.

These gases stay in the atmosphere for many years and as they build up, the planet’s temperature rises. A warmer world leads to more extreme climate, with more severe droughts, floods and storms.

1. The UK isn’t built for heat

From homes to workplaces, our infrastructure isn’t built to accommodate high temperatures.

Currently, 1 in 5 homes in the UK overheat to more than 26°C. These temperatures can trigger conditions like heat stroke, and the rise of home working since the COVID-19 pandemic means many people are working in potentially unsafe environments.

Those who commute aren’t spared either. Most of us will be familiar with the chaos caused when train tracks overheat. But even more worryingly, there’s no maximum legal limit on workplace temperatures, which is particularly dangerous for the lowest paid and most insecure workers who find themselves at the mercy of their companies.

2. Heat affects the most vulnerable

At best, the heat disrupts our day. At worst, it’s fatal. The scorching summer of 2022 sadly resulted in 2,803 excess deaths due to extreme heat.

Health problems can start when temperatures reach 24-25°C, even without an official heatwave. Those hit hardest are often the elderly and most vulnerable, with pre-existing conditions like cardiovascular and respiratory diseases made worse by the heat.

A UK study conducted in the early 2000s showed deaths related to heat increased by a third among residents living in London, the over-75s and people in care homes.

And it's even worse for other, poorer countries, which are experiencing catastrophic heatwaves, flooding and wildfires, while being far less responsible for global heating.

3. Extreme heat affects our food supplies

Back in 2018 the UK experienced a heatwave that threatened our food supplies. Farmers declared a crop shortage and the food prices shot up.

National Farmers Union president Minette Batters commented: "This unprecedented spell of weather really should be a wake-up call for us all. It's a timely reminder that we shouldn't take food production for granted."

Who suffers the most?

Where you live matters. New research has identified Birmingham, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Nottingham as the top 5 local authorities with the most "at risk" neighbourhoods. This is due to the age of the population, levels of crime meaning windows can't be left open, areas with a large stock of privately rented accommodation in poor condition, densely populated homes such as high rises that are susceptible to overheating, and poor tree cover and access to green spaces.

The colour of your skin may determine if you're more at risk. Our research with the University of Manchester and University of Leeds identified people of colour are 4 times more likely to live within one of the priority neighbourhoods for adaptation than white people. What's more, we found that high-risk neighbourhoods for heat have lower carbon footprints than average. Assuming this was also true in the past, this means the most vulnerable communities are less responsible than average for causing climate change but will bear the brunt of it.

What can we do about rising temperatures?

The UK has a historical responsibility to do everything it can to limit the increase in global temperature and the extreme weather it's causing.

At Friends of the Earth we’re lobbying government on multiple issues to ensure it reduces emissions and increases natural cooling solutions like tree cover.