The social impact of climate change in the UK isn’t as widely discussed as environmental or economic influences.
We all understand the role global warming plays in rising sea levels, bush fires and extreme heatwaves, but climate change will have an impact on people’s daily lives here in the UK, too.
Social impact refers to the physical and emotional wellbeing of the UK population: its mental and physical health, social deprivation, access to education, employment and opportunities as well as social care.
We know that temperatures are up and that our surrounding sea levels are rising. Everyone in the UK will experience the effects of climate change at some point in the near future (if they haven’t already), but some people are more likely to struggle with those effects than others.
Often, it’s the most vulnerable that are at risk: the elderly, the very young, those with chronic or life-threatening illnesses and those on low-incomes.
How Is Climate Change Affecting the UK?
In 2018, Michael Gove launched The UK Climate Projections (UKCP) which The Met Office describes as the ‘most detailed picture yet of UK’s future climate’.
- Summer temperatures could be up to 5.4 °C hotter by 2070
- Winters could be up to 4.2 °C warmer
- The chance of a summer as hot as 2018 is around 50 % by 2050
- Sea levels in London could rise by up to 1.15 metres by 2100
- Average summer rainfall could decrease by up to 47 % by 2070, while there could be up to 35 % more precipitation in the winter. In fact, ‘extremely wet winters are 5 times more likely in the next century.’
- We already know that the UK’s sea levels are rising by around 3mm per year.
- Further research shows that average UK temperatures have risen by 1 degree in the last century. 9 of the 10 hottest summers have all occurred since 2002.
Rising sea levels are leading to increased rates of coastal erosion.
An increase in the number of heatwaves is also likely to lead to more regular wildfires.
The UK’s climate is changing, and quickly.
What are the Social Impacts of Climate Change in the UK?
Lord John Krebs, chair of the CCC’s adaptation sub-committee says,
“What we now think of as an extremely hot summer, where people are dying of heat stress and it is extremely uncomfortable in homes, hospitals and much of transport, that is likely to be a typical summer by the middle of the century and would be a cool summer in the 2080s,”
Taken from ClimateReality.org
This prediction is based on what the UK’s future could look like if the 2015 Paris Agreement on tackling climate change isn’t ‘fully delivered’.
Climate Change and the Impact on Health
The UK’s temperate climate has protected it from some of the nastier insect and animal borne disease that we see in Europe and beyond but warmer temperatures could bring mosquitoes to Britain with fears that malaria and the Zika virus could come, too. The Department of Health announced its spending £56 million to research the consequences of climate change on public health.
If dangerous insect borne diseases were to make their way to the UK, it would be additional strain on health services. Again, the young and elderly would be at particular risk.
ClimateChange.org writes that urban areas can be particularly problematic as they’re often located on low-lying areas or near to the ‘mouths of major rivers’ putting people at increased risk of rising sea levels and flooding. Waterborne disease is a problem in flooded areas and so too is the destruction of property and food shortages.
The social and economic impacts of climate change often go together. If you can’t get to a job because the infrastructure is too badly damaged or if you’re struggling to afford rising food costs or if you have no electricity, then this affects your ability to support yourself and family, leading to increased poverty and then a higher vulnerability to the consequences of future climate change related problems.
Flooding in Coastal Areas
Coastal towns tend to have higher populations of elderly people and vagrants and rising sea levels make flooding, the destruction of property and the disruption of services more likely. This could mean people’s ability to access healthcare or support. It could make travel more difficult leaving people isolated in rural or remote areas.
Coastal towns and villages often rely on tourism and visitors but this could be undermined by damage, disease or associations of danger.
Heat in Urban Areas
People living in urban areas are at risk of rising temperatures.
Urban heat island effect is a term used to describe how the temperature is often higher in cities than in surrounding rural areas. Buildings and pavements ‘absorb, store and radiate heat’ which makes the environment hotter. Many office blocks and homes aren’t built to keep heat out (the UK has been far more concerned historically with keeping the heat in).
Working and living in cities like London, Birmingham or Manchester in extreme heat could become physically intolerable. The NHS can expect more hospital admissions, too, but will also be facing the problem of keeping patients cool inside its hospitals and care facilities.
Movement of People and Goods
Flooding and extreme heat can cripple the infrastructure making it difficult to move people and goods around the country; this not only has a social impact – people trying to get to work, to get to schools or to visit friends and family or access public services – but there’s also an economic impact: running a business could be more difficult particularly if you’re relying on a UK supply chain. Flooding can wash away roads and tracks. Excessive snowfall and high winds can close airports.
The social impact of climate change shouldn’t be underestimated. Some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society are likely to suffer first and suffer hardest.
But climate change will make all of us vulnerable.
The UK is going to have to start living with the effects of climate change. The impact will be felt environmentally, politically, economically and socially. It’s important that we work to lessen that impact both for ourselves, our businesses and for future generations.