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Karen Fletcher looks at how the latest heatwave may signal a change in the way the UK plans for heat

The 40C temperatures of July 2022 have pushed the already-overheated politics of climate change to boiling point.  

It’s clear that what some people regard as a forerunner of a climate crisis for the UK, others are happy to take as a chance to enjoy the sun.

Several commentators in the media hinted that anyone who thinks 40C is a problem is just a snowflake. Why, in the heatwave of 1976, they didn’t even remove their school blazers and passed their Eleven Plus just fine, thank you.

Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but some of those slapping on the suntan lotion include government ministers such as deputy prime minister Dominic Raab who said we should “enjoy the summer…”

If you want to be hard-headed about it, climate change is not good for business.

Karen Fletcher Rocket Karen Fletcher, Rocket Content

Problems ahead

But it's time to take off the rose-tinted sunglasses and understand that increasingly high temperatures here in the UK signal real problems ahead.

The economy is a subsidiary of our climate. The high temperatures of July brought railways to a standstill; damaged airport runways; caused refrigeration failures in supermarkets and power cuts across the UK.

If you want to be hard-headed about it, climate change is not good for business.

We never learn the lesson

We have been here before, but governments have short memories.

I’m old enough (just) to remember that heatwave of 1976 and it was not all ice-creams and picnics. A newly-appointed Minister for Drought, Dennis Howell, introduced emergency powers to turn off water to homes and factories.

My mother dutifully queued with neighbours to collect water from standpipes at the end of our street and spent evenings measuring out the government-sanctioned 2 inches (or 5 centimetres post-decimalisation) of bathwater.

Far beyond the domestic discomfort, the country experienced significant impacts on the economy as factories shut and farmers struggled with £500 million in damaged crops.

London saw a 30% increase in deaths during that heatwave.

And we can’t pretend we were any better prepared for 2022.

For example, the severe heat impacted heat output from the UK’s gas-fired power stations (less efficient in the hot weather).

As a result, the UK had to pay record prices to import electricity from the Netherlands.

We are also being warned of possible drought conditions in August.

No longer a cold climate

UK governments in the next few decades must take action to mitigate the impact of our changing climate.

Perhaps more importantly, we need to prepare ourselves for the UK climate to be very different in future. We can no longer think of ourselves as a ‘cold’ country. We must prepare or face dire consequences for business, industry, homes and health. 

In an interview with the Financial Times, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation Matthew Taylor commented that without long-term investment in health services, summers risk becoming even more difficult for the NHS to navigate than winter.

Designed for heat

Other factors we currently face such as the rising costs of energy, and the difficulties caused by reliance on foreign fossil fuel supplies, mean it has never made more sense to switch to renewables and nuclear energy.

We also need to ensure we are designing our buildings and cities with 40oC summers in mind.

The media focus on whether the government is nannying the population by telling us all to stay out of the heat is a distraction.

Sunbathe if you want to. July’s temperatures were a warning that we’ve been given before and have not heeded.

We need to put pressure on politicians to stick to their guns when it comes to climate change policies and to ensure that the UK can successfully cope with a hotter future.

Karen Fletcher is former editor of CIBSE Journal and Modern Building Services