Temperatures in the UK have soared to 34°C this week, and the UK Met Office has issued its second highest heatwave alert. A number of European countries, including Spain, Portugal, and France, have all triggered alerts following record highs of over 40°C last weekend. If the health effects of heatwaves on patients, especially the most vulnerable, are worrying the medical profession, then the insidious and evolving threat that climate change poses to public health should give cause for more pressing concern and response.
There is clear evidence demonstrating that climate change escalates the frequency, duration, and intensity of heatwaves. Indeed, new analysis published this week suggests that under a “business as usual scenario,” 74% of the world’s population will eventually be exposed to temperatures commonly referred to as “lethal heat events” (up from 30% today).
It is not only temperatures that have risen recently: pressure on individual ministers has steadily grown over recent weeks with the start of Brexit negotiations and the formation of a new government. One of the most controversial appointments saw Michael Gove return to the cabinet as the secretary of state for environment, food, and rural affairs.
When Theresa May, the UK prime minister, announced that Gove would replace Andrea Leadsom at the department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra), rumours resurfaced about Gove’s failed attempt to remove climate change from the school curriculum during his tenure as secretary of state for education. Earlier this year, Gove criticized regulations preventing construction near protected wildlife habitats, fuelling claims that he will work to scrap them when the UK leaves the EU. This is concerning as the UK Government still hasn’t published its long-awaited 25 year plans for farming and nature.
However, Gove’s first act as environment secretary was to deny that he had ever intended to remove climate change from the national curriculum, and in a speech at the launch of the Conservative Environment Network in 2014, he described himself as a “shy green” and reaffirmed common scientific consensus concerning the severity of climate change and its links to human activities.
Going forward, what truly matters is that Defra implements robust policies to improve health and tackle climate change. One of the most critical areas overseen by Defra concerns the improvement of air quality.
Defra’s own draft air quality plan says that poor air quality is “the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK” and rightly discusses the impact of air pollution on the environment. Air pollution is a major contributor to ill health in the UK, resulting in an estimated 40,000 equivalent deaths annually. Air pollution has a role in many of the major health challenges of our day and has been linked to lung cancer, asthma, stroke, and heart disease, and even to diabetes, obesity, and degenerative neurological disorders.
The health problems resulting from exposure to air pollution have a high cost to the public, to our health services, and to business. In the UK, these costs add up to more than £20 billion every year. Road transport is one of the biggest sources of pollution in the UK, contributing to poor air quality, noise disturbance, congestion, and climate change.
Last week for the first ever National Clean Air Day, The BMJ published an infographic showing that the vast majority of London’s NHS hospitals and medical facilities are located in areas with very high levels of air pollution. This is additional proof that more needs to be done to tackle air pollution. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan is implementing a series of hard-hitting measures that other cities and towns across the country should also be able to implement. However, without adequate funding, the measures recommended to local authorities in the air quality plan will never see the light of day.
Health professionals across the country are expecting Defra’s final air quality plan to be published on 31 July 2017. It aims to support local action and provide leadership to tackle what is “one of the biggest health challenges of our days.” Air pollution and climate change are intertwined. We need policymakers who put health at the centre of all policies, and that includes the health benefits of tackling climate change. Now that Michael Gove is in the driver’s seat he can be more than a “shy green”: he can be a climate leader.
Nick Watts is the director of the UK Health Alliance on climate change.
Pauline Castres is policy and communications officer at the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.
Competing interests: None declared.