UK's Scorching Heat Wave Left People of Color More Vulnerable

"Those less contributing to the problem are suffering most from the consequences."

People roller skate on the promenade during the recent hot weather on June 17, 2022 in Southend, England.

John Keeble / Getty Images

Martin Sirakov never experienced anything like the heat wave that wilted the United Kingdom this past week. The 34-year-old, who works as a supply chain manager in private healthcare, stuck to his routine Tuesday morning—a quick 15-minute bike ride to his air-conditioned office. Later in the day, Britain's official weather organization, the Met Office, would record its highest ever temperature: 102.4 degrees Fahrenheit (40.2 degrees Celsius).

Sirakov's short commute home, coupled with a 5-minute bike errand, resulted in a light heat stroke that left him with a headache and in a state of confusion. "I don’t think sustained heat like this is survivable in the U.K.," he tells Treehugger.

The repercussions of the high temperatures were widespread: a damaged runway at London's Luton airport, train cancellations and delays due to concerns about the rails, a "huge surge" in heat-induced fires, and people drowned while attempting to cool down in bodies of water. According to scientists, the undeniable culprit is climate change.

“The extreme temperatures that we have been experiencing in the U.K. are unprecedented in recorded history,” said Stephen Belcher, the chief scientist at the Met Office, in a statement. “In a climate unaffected by human influence, climate modeling shows that it is virtually impossible for temperatures in the U.K. to reach 40 degrees C."

An aerial view shows a Union Flag flying among the the rubble and destruction in a residential area, following a large blaze the previous day, on July 20, 2022 in Wennington, Greater London.
A series of fires broke out across England, as the U.K. experienced a record-breaking heat wave.

Leon Neal / Getty Images

People of Color in the U.K. Are at Greater Risk

As is often the case globally with those who carry the brunt of the symptoms of climate change, scientists found those who contribute the least to global warming are the ones impacted the most in the U.K. Researchers at the University of Manchester and Friends of the Earth found people of color are four times more likely to live in neighborhoods at higher risk of heat waves.

"We found that these most vulnerable communities had the lowest carbon footprint. That makes this a justice issue within the U.K.—those less contributing to the problem are suffering most from the consequences," Mike Childs, head of science, policy, and research at Friends of the Earth, tells Treehugger. "This is obviously a subset of a much bigger picture globally with those countries most on the frontline of extreme heat (e.g. India, Pakistan) the least responsible. There will be areas of the world that become unliveable if we don’t cut emissions quickly which raises the specter of failed states and mass climate migration."

Heat waves are only going to become more common across the globe courtesy of human-induced global warming.

Reasons for the disparity range from housing in communities of color being less equipped to neighborhoods having less natural shade and green spaces. "Partly this is a consequence of racial economic inequalities but also that this is also because it is more of an urban problem (heat island impacts)," says Childs. "Economic inequalities also make it more likely that people of color will be in rental properties, which in the U.K. are of poorer quality, and therefore unable to adapt their homes to heat."

Being able to spotlight high-risk neighborhoods is the first step to adaptative change. The researchers wrote in the report: “We need to know who is most vulnerable to the health impacts of global heating so we know where to prioritize any measures to help impacted communities. Action to reduce inequalities, necessary in themselves, will also reduce heat-risk.” 

Heat Wave Injustice Is Not Solely a U.K. Problem

Last year, a study from the University of California San Diego analyzed 1,056 U.S. counties to find communities with higher Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations were more likely to experience urban heat than neighborhoods that were predominantly white. “Systematically, the disproportionate heat surface exposures faced by low-income communities with larger minority populations are due to more built-up neighborhoods, less vegetation, and—to a lesser extent—higher population density,” said first author Susanne Benz in a statement. 

Things Will Get Worse

Heat waves are only going to become more common across the globe courtesy of human-induced global warming. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the "frequency and intensity of hot extremes (including heatwaves) have increased" across the global scale since 1950 and it will get more severe. Heat waves that typically took place once every 50 years are already happening every decade, with the potential to occur every six years with 1.5 degrees C of warming and every one to two years with 4 degrees C of warming.

“Under a very high emissions scenario we could see temperatures exceeding 40 degrees as frequently as every three years by the end of the century in the U.K.," Belcher said. "Reducing carbon emissions will help to reduce the frequency, but we will still continue to see some occurrences of temperatures exceeding 40 degrees C and the U.K. will need to adapt to these extreme events.”

The recent heat wave spotlighted how the U.K. is not equipped to deal with soaring temperatures. Homes in the area, for example, are designed to keep the heat in and seldom have air conditioning. Cooling centers, which are commonplace in U.S. and Canadian cities that are often victim to heat waves, are not a readily available resource in the U.K. And then there's transportation.

Paul David, an East London-based managing director of content marketing agency Literal Humans, tells Treehugger buildings and public transit (buses and underground Tube lines) either don't have air conditioning or weren't working. “I have experienced this level of heat before growing up in the U.S.,” says David, who is originally from Philadelphia. “It was really interesting to experience heat waves in a place that doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with it.”

David, who had colleagues stranded at the mercy of the train system and a co-worker that fell ill from the heat, says he's "really worried about the future." His top concerns are the health of his team and where to find safe, cool spaces for them to work from.

Experts are calling for U.K. officials to adapt and prepare for periods of extreme heat. Childs says government funding for adaptation entails planting street trees, creating green spaces, retrofitting homes so they're cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and equipping community centers with air conditioning so vulnerable populations can cool off.

And, of course, it's vital to simultaneously tackle the bigger issue at play. "We can’t continue to allow the planet to keep warming—we need to get off fossil fuels quickly," says Childs.

View Article Sources
  1. "Weather and Climate Extreme Events in a Changing Climate." Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

  2. "Who Suffers Most From Heatwaves in the UK?" Friends of the Earth.

  3. Benz, Susanne Amelie, and Jennifer Anne Burney. "Widespread Race and Class Disparities In Surface Urban Heat Extremes Across The United States." Earth's Future, vol. 9, no. 7, 2021, doi:10.1029/2021ef002016