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Sensemaker: Heat deaths rising

Sensemaker: Heat deaths rising

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The Washington Post said FBI agents may have been looking for documents on nuclear weapons in their raid this week on Trump’s Florida estate.
  • The UN proposed a demilitarised zone at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to prevent a radiation disaster. 
  • Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and Manchester were shortlisted as potential hosts for next year’s Eurovision song contest.

Heat deaths rising

José Antonio González took two water bottles and a homemade water sprayer to keep himself cool when he started a street cleaning shift at 2pm during a heatwave last month in Madrid. It wasn’t enough. He collapsed three hours into his shift and died the next day in hospital, aged 60. Emergency services said his body temperature was above 41C and he died from heat stroke. 

Across Spain, authorities recorded 1,682 heat-related deaths between 11 and 24 July, while Portugal reported more than 1,000 deaths as a result of extreme heat between 7 and 18 July. At the time, temperatures in both countries were reaching the mid-40Cs. 

Thousands are dying because of the intense summer heat, and not just in southern Europe. In the UK, where the weather service has issued an “extreme heat” warning this weekend for the second time in two months, there were 1,803 excess deaths (excluding Covid) in the two weeks to 22 July. 

Most countries don’t list heat as a cause of death. Instead they estimate heat-related deaths using excess mortality figures. What’s clear is that as heat waves become more frequent, more people will die unless countries adapt. The average number of heat-related deaths in the UK is expected to more than triple to 7,000 a year by the 2050s.

By the numbers: 

  • Average global temperatures have increased by about 1.1C since pre-industrial times, according to Nasa.
  • If temperatures go up by 2 degrees, a billion people will be afflicted by acute heat stress, up from 68 million today.
  • 37 per cent of global heat-related deaths between 1991 and 2018 were caused by climate change, say scientists in a recent Nature paper.
  • According to a 2021 Lancet study, most heat-related deaths over the past 20 years occurred in cities in eastern and southern Asia and in Europe.

Who’s at risk? The World Health Organization (WHO) says children, elderly people, and people with chronic health conditions are most vulnerable to heat-related illness and death. People who work outdoors or are homeless are also disproportionately impacted.

What counts as extreme heat varies by country because people who live in warmer regions are better prepared for it physically and behaviourally. Researchers use a measurement called minimum mortality temperature (MMT) to work out the temperature above which heat starts to cause an increase in deaths. The MMT in Kuwait is 31.1C; in Switzerland it’s 14.2C.

Which areas are worst hit? Large, crowded coastal cities have the highest rates of heat-related deaths, the Lancet study found. Urbanisation can cut per capita carbon emissions but cities are hotter than the surrounding countryside, as vegetation is replaced with pavements, buildings and other artificial surfaces that trap heat. 

Heat is unfair. Poorer neighbourhoods often have less green space. During the most recent heat wave in the UK, people living in deprived neighbourhoods faced significantly higher temperatures – by up to 5C – putting them at higher risk of heat illness or death.

What should be done? Despite the imminent threat of extreme heat, many countries are failing to adapt. The UK’s official climate advisors say it’s woefully unprepared to cope with future heat waves, despite over 10 years of warnings that change is needed. 

The picture is similar in much of the EU. Only 16 of the 27 countries have national heat health action plans, according to the WHO, and fewer than half of those that do have them fund them properly. 

González’s death led to better protections for street cleaners in Madrid, including halting work during heatwaves. It shouldn’t take more deaths for governments to wake up to the danger. 


CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE

US inflation
American inflation might have peaked. It’s by no means certain, and stock markets were on the fence yesterday after some exuberance the day before. But a roughly 20 per cent decline in world oil prices since their peak in March has fed through at last to US petrol pumps. American motorists are paying under $4 a gallon again after being forced to pay more than $5 in June, which was a painful hit to low income families and a serious headache for the White House. Biden was forced to fly cap in hand to Saudi Arabia to ask its crown prince to boost production. He released 180 million barrels from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve and seemed to have shelved all climate ambition in an at-all-costs drive to boost domestic oil production. He’s since signed the most ambitious climate mitigation package in US history and will be hoping a Biden-tames-inflation narrative takes hold in time for the November midterms. What isn’t happening yet: peak inflation in the UK. Latest projections are for household energy bills to pass £5,000 a year next spring.


TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THINGS

TikTok and Russia
TikTok has tried to walk a tightrope in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, avoiding punishment for distributing content banned by Moscow while also avoiding international censure for promoting Russian propaganda. Its solution in principle was to suspend live streaming and uploading new content by Russia-based users. In reality it’s fallen off the rope. Wired reports that Tracking Exposed, a digital rights watchdog, has found Russian-based users are being allowed to bypass TikTok’s restrictions by uploading content to other users’ “For You Page” (FYP). These are notionally private but the practical upshot is there’s no shortage of pro-war Russian content available to view via the world’s most downloaded app. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, which is headquartered in Beijing and maintains close ties with the Chinese Communist Party.


The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Polio’s return
The hot, dry weather may be reminiscent of 1976 (see below), but a creeping fear that poliovirus could be returning is more 1984 – the last time a wild case of the virus was reported in the UK. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is advising that all children between one and nine years old in London to be vaccinated as soon as possible, after more than 100 ​​type 2 poliovirus isolates were found in sewage samples in the capital between February and July, with genetic variation indicating mutations and community spread. Some caveats: most samples are a vaccine-like virus which is less ominous than vaccine-derived poliovirus, or VDPV2. VDPV2 can act more like wild polio and – in rare cases – lead to paralysis if someone is unvaccinated. In most instances, the poliovirus is asymptomatic. The UK’s health agency is working with public health officials in New York and Israel where the virus has also appeared in sewage samples, to combat further spread. In New York an unvaccinated man was paralysed last month after contracting a vaccine-derived form of the virus, while Israel diagnosed its first case in decades in March – a 4 year-old from Jerusalem. 


Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Dry England
Parts of Yorkshire have recorded their lowest rainfall levels this summer since records began more than 130 years ago. Yorkshire Water has announced a hosepipe ban to come into effect next week – the first in northern England and the fifth nationally as reservoirs empty and the source of the Thames dries up. The last time England was this dry was in 1976, when parts of the country were reduced to filling water containers from standpipes. The country’s water supply has been modernised since then, with fewer leaks and smarter management, but a drought is still expected to be announced today for large parts of the south and east, meaning hosepipe bans for millions and fines of up to £1,000 for violators. A Sensemaker correspondent in Badcall, northwest Scotland, reports cold, wet weather with low clouds and poor visibility.


CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING

Russian visas
Estonia will ban Russians with Estonia-issued Schengen visas from entering the country, as well as those with tourist visas and student visas. Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Czech Republic have also stopped issuing tourist visas for Russians, and the prime ministers of Estonia and Finland have called on the EU to do the same. “It is not right that at the same time as Russia is waging an aggressive, brutal war of aggression in Europe, Russians can live a normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists,” says Finland’s Sanna Marin. Estonia’s PM, Kaya Kallas, says visiting Europe is “a privilege, not a human right”. Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, in an interview with the Washington Post, said he believed the only way to stop Russia taking more land was to ban all Russian travellers. But European unity isn’t certain: yesterday Germany’s Olaf Scholz pushed back on the idea, saying the war in Ukraine “is Putin’s war”. Up to a point, Mr Sholz. Putin has no shortage of willing accomplices.

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what you think. Send an email to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Asha Mior

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell, Phoebe Davis and Jessica Winch. Graphic by Katie Riley.

Photographs Getty Images


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