How the UK can adapt to future heatwaves

The persistent high temperatures and scorched ground this summer have been a big wake up call for change
12 August 2022

Interview with 

Shaun Fitzgerald, Cambridge University


Many countries are in the grip of severe heatwaves and droughts. In the UK, July was the driest since 1935. Climate projections predict that these events will become much more frequent in future. At the same time, our infrastructure remains woefully underprepared to deal with more summers with prolonged heat and a lack of rain. Shaun Fitzgerald is from the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University where they consider scenarios like these and told James Tytko about the current drought...

Shaun - Well, the first thing is that it is not good news clearly, but the second thing is sadly, this is not a surprise. We have been projecting this for actually really quite some time that we will be seeing an increased frequency of severe weather events and an increased severity of those severe weather events. It's been a case of not if, but when, and how frequent are we going to see these. It's becoming very much more real because it's on our doorstep and we have this unfortunate tendency that if it's not on our doorstep and it's not very pleasant, we seem to ignore it. But I'm afraid we can't do that anymore and we've got to deal with this, but we've got to deal with this by learning from others who have had to deal with conditions like this. We seem to be living in a more Mediterranean type climate over the summer, but conversely, come the winter, we may well also be looking at severe weather events; increased water, actually flooding and things like this. We're going to see more volatile weather than we have had to enjoy for the last many decades.

James - You mentioned they're potentially learning from other countries, neighbours, maybe who are used to these sort of climates on a more regular basis. How can we safeguard ourselves in the short term? What can we learn from our neighbours?

Shaun - The most important thing is to think about who are the people that are going to be most affected and they're the more vulnerable people in society. So the elderly, those with medical conditions, are going to be the ones that we really need to think about. And the kinds of things that we need to do are looking at the living styles and the housing styles that have been adopted in many different climates than the UK. So if we go further south towards a Mediterranean, for example, many of the houses will have shutters. They're not there by accident there for a very good reason, in that during the day in the summer, the ventilation and the strategy for managing your interior environment is to close the shutters, probably close the windows as well if it's really hot outside, because the previous night you've ventilated the building very, very well - you've kept the shutters open, you've kept the windows open. Furthermore, the kind of buildings that have been constructed are likely to have been more thermally massive. So they've got thicker walls, they're made out of stone and things like that. Those buildings have got a capacity to precool those buildings at night so that during the following roasting hot summer day, you are bathed in a cool environment and you're radiating heat at 37 degrees celsius, if you are reasonably well, and those stone walls or the thermally massive walls are much colder, maybe they're at 15 to 20 degree centigrade, you are effectively radiating heat to those successfully and deriving a pleasure of the fact that they're absorbing that radiation and you will therefore have not only a cooler air temperature, but a cooler perceived temperature as a result of that radiative effect.

James - You've described there some actions we can take on an individual household level and then there's others, which will require some big infrastructure changes. Are you confident that the authorities of the powers that be are taking this issue seriously enough?

Shaun - I'm not unfortunately. And it's because of the pace of change that we are now seeing in terms of the climate and we are questioning really how quickly can policies change, and I think we need to be moving much more quickly. So for example, with the shortage of water at the moment, should we all have water butts to go and actually store rain when it does come so we can then at least provide water for vegetables and things like this. If you're growing those in your garden. We've got to do more things like this, we've got to do more things on the planning and it's so often that we don't have these things just installed as standard; I think it's very rare that you see this as part of a new build development.

James - And just quickly Sean, have you got any more suggestions along the same lines that people listening right can do to help reduce their water usage, for example?

Shaun - Well, the first thing is to just be more aware of how much water you are using. When you turn the washing machine on, has it got a full load or a half load? Let's wait and do the full load. Secondly, when you're doing the washing up, instead of just being tempted to tip the, the dirty dish water down the sink, let's go and find another use for it, take it outside. I know it's a hassle, but actually if that's the water that gets put onto pot plants - and it's pot plants in particular that don't do very well in these sorts of conditions because pots just don't retain their water very well - you can actually safeguard your geraniums or whatever it is you've got planted and actually enjoy the fact that you are able to cope with some of this warm weather.

James - Shaun Fitzgerald, thanks very much for coming in.


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