Poorer feel the effects of heatwaves
BEFORE this blustery September blows away the last memories of the extraordinarily hot summer we have had, let’s talk about heat and inequality.
We all know that poorer people suffer during cold winters, sometimes even (shamefully) having to choose between heating and eating. But what about heatwaves, when day after day the sweltering sun bears down on us all? Does this affect certain sectors of the population more than others?
It is obvious to conclude that whilst wealthier people dash from air-conned office to suburban shade and can survive extreme temperatures (even if the Tube is a bit of nightmare), a city’s homeless have no refuge from the blanket of heat.
However, even if not homeless, poorer people struggle: little or no household insulation, poor ventilation and unaffordable electricity bills can exacerbate the effects of climate extremes.
Whilst extreme heat is linked to deaths from heat exhaustion, stroke and cardiovascular disease, increasing temperatures also make air pollution more deadly, as nitrous oxides generate ozone when heated by the sun, inflaming people’s airways and killing the more vulnerable amongst us.
Typically those living in areas of high air pollution are people with less money and fewer life options. Think of the North Circular – few people would find living next to that busy road desirable, given the choice.
Furthermore, World Health Organisation research shows a trend away from rural living and anticipates that 60% of people will live in cities by 2030. The more densely populated cities become, the hotter they’ll get. As urban areas develop, buildings, roads, and other infrastructure replace open land and vegetation. Surfaces that were once permeable and moist, like grasslands, become impermeable and dry, covered with concrete, tarmac and dark roofs. Such areas soak up heat and retain it for longer than rural surroundings, forming an island of significantly higher temperatures.
Trees and plants help cool the environment, making vegetation a simple, effective way to reduce urban heat islands, providing shade, evaporation and transpiration. However, there is a correlation between an area’s greenness and its wealth. Typically, poorer areas are built as high rise, high density accommodation, without green spaces.
As the impacts of climate change are ever more apparent, even in temperate Western Europe, where 35,000 died during the heatwave of August 2003, we should be planning for the future and trying to tackle this area of little known but growing social inequality.