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The miserable future of 40°C summers

Last year’s 40°C heatwave has given people in the UK a glimpse into the future – suggesting that, for many, summers will often mean avoiding alcohol and staying indoors.

A study of people’s behaviour in July 2022, when temperatures exceeded 40°C in the UK for the first time, revealed widespread changes in everything from clothing, diet and lifestyle to attending church or going to the supermarket during that time.

The period could go down in history as the time the UK saw the start of a widespread shift in attitude to hot weather, researchers say – in which many people stopped automatically seeing heat as a “good thing” and started to ask whether it may be a “bad thing”.

“We can see a shift in how people are thinking about hot weather as their experience of extreme heat grows – perceptions are shifting,” Louise King, of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations at Bath University, told i.

“Hot weather has typically been viewed positively in the UK but people are starting to experience the negative impacts of extreme heat on their everyday lives.

“We found that the 2022 heatwave, for many, was the first time they had experienced extreme heat in the UK for a prolonged period. There was a shift, for some, from it being merely an inconvenience to having more significant impacts on their lives – for example, on their sleep, work and caring for relatives and pets.”

“They also reported feeling lethargic and finding it hard to do normal activities, difficulty concentrating and being productive in their working lives,” Dr King added.

Working with University of Bath colleague Christina Demski, her findings are drawn from a nationally-representative survey of 1,500 people – carried out with the University of East London – along with interviews conducted with 40 others and four workshops involving 25 people.

Their findings are being used as part of an inquiry on how well-prepared UK homes are for rising temperatures by the Environmental Audit Committee, a cross-party group of MPs looking at the effectiveness of the government’s green policies.

What will the UK’s future summers look like?

The study reveals that during the heatwave of 2022, the nation ate, drank and dressed quite differently – stayed indoors a lot more and did far fewer activities.

Clothing: 77 per cent wore different clothing (light coloured and fabric e.g. linen, cotton)

Alcohol: 46 per cent avoided alcohol

Cool buildings: 21 per cent left home to visit air-conditioned buildings, such as supermarkets, shopping malls and churches

Diet: 76 per cent stuck to cold food and cold fluids

Paddling pools: 23 per cent put out an outdoor paddling pool or cool hot tub

Outdoors: When outside, 63 per cent stayed in the shade

Curtains: 62 per cent kept curtains, blinds and windows open at night. And 58 per cent kept them closed during the day.

Bathing: 51 per cent took a shower or bath more often

Indoors: 47 per cent stayed indoors during the day

Activity: 47 per cent avoided physical activity

Getting out of town: 19 per cent left home to visit cooler coastal and rural areas

Hot rooms: 43 per cent moved to a cool room in the home.

What people said:

“I was sat behind a laptop struggling to get through work, I couldn’t think in the heat, counting down the hours until I finished. It felt like suffering in a way.”

“I felt hot, sweaty, uncomfortable, irritated, stressed, unable to concentrate, tired. It was hard to work from home because I was working from home at that time and I was very frustrated.”

“It was just so hot. And there was just no air, and you just feel like you can’t cool yourself down. And it kind of made me feel like claustrophobic.”

“It was isolating, I couldn’t really go out like normal. Just stuck in the house with all the curtains shut. Pretty depressing really.”

“It was just unbearable. You just couldn’t sleep, so therefore you’re tired. You’re just in a circle, and you can’t get out of it.”

What is the impact of a heatwave on our health?

The research also shows that many people experienced both physical and mental health impacts related to the summer 2022 heatwave.

Some 55 per cent of those surveyed reported some experience of heat-related health conditions, such as heat stroke, dehydration, or exacerbation of existing health issues including cardiovascular or pulmonary conditions, diabetes and renal disease.

Some people described collapsing during the heatwave, suffering from heat stress and heat stroke, which is of particular concern within vulnerable groups – over 65s, young children and those with underlying health conditions.

The research also found that the heatwave affected people’s mental health.

People reported a decline in cognitive function – attention and memory – which reduced productivity as well as increased anxiety and stress.

Low mood, loss of social networks and poor quality sleep were other common issues.

Meanwhile, low motivation and lethargy were reported across diverse age groups with a decrease in physical and social activities due to low energy or inhospitable outdoor settings.

Attempts to cope with extreme heat, such as closing windows and curtains, may have helped keep the temperature down but they were also found to increase feelings of isolation and loneliness in some participants.

What do the experts say?

Experts from climate change organisations said the findings gave an unpleasant insight into the future.

“Worryingly, I think we are going to see a lot more of the problems this research highlights as heatwaves become more frequent thanks to climate change,” said Roger Harding, Director of climate change charity Round Our Way.

“It is those of us who are stuck in smaller cramped flats or houses, or who are getting on a bit, who are the most at risk of overheating. We all deserve to be able to live and work in reasonable temperatures, but with increasing heatwaves like we saw last year that simply isn’t possible for growing numbers of people.

“We urgently need politicians better to protect us from the effects of climate change and do more to tackle it in the first place.”

Gareth Redmond-King, of the research group, Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, said: “The intense heat of summer of 2022 was an unwelcome glimpse into our future, with the Met Office warning that 40°C will become commonplace in future decades if we continue as we are. This research shows the many and varied ways that extreme heat harms our physical and mental health.”

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