More than 20,000 people died across Western Europe during this summer’s heat waves, at temperatures that would have been nearly impossible without climate collapse, figures show.
Analysis of excess deaths, the difference between the number of deaths that have happened and the number expected based on historical trends, reveals the threats posed by climate change-induced global warming, scientists say.
During the summer heat waves, temperatures in London exceeded 40C (104F), areas of south-west France reached 42C and Seville and Córdoba in Spain set records of 44C. Analysis by the World Weather Attribution group of scientists found that such high temperatures would have been “virtually impossible” without the climate crisis.
In England and Wales, 3,271 excess deaths were recorded between June 1 and September 7, according to the Office for National Statistics – 6.2% more than the five-year average.
The analysis does not specifically estimate the number of heat-related deaths, but the number of deaths was higher on average for days with a heat spell than days without a heat spell. Deaths from covid-19 were excluded.
In France, 10,420 excess deaths were reported during the summer months, according to data released by Santé Publique France, the government’s public health agency.
One in four of these deaths, or 2,816, occurred during one of three intense heat waves that hit the country. The excess deaths were 20% higher in regions where red alerts for extreme temperatures had been issued.
In Spain, the state-sponsored Carlos III Health Institute estimates that there are 4,655 heat-related deaths between June and August.
The Robert Koch Institute, the health service of the German government, estimates that 4,500 people died in the country during the summer months, mainly due to extreme temperatures.
Dr. Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London, said: “Heat waves are one of the greatest threats from climate change. High temperatures are responsible for thousands of deaths around the world each year, many of which are underreported.
“Despite this overwhelming evidence, there is still little public awareness of the dangers extreme temperatures pose to human health.”
According to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the summer of 2022 was the warmest on record.
Dr. Eunice Lo, a research fellow in climate change and health at the University of Bristol, said: “Heat waves are becoming more frequent and intense as the planet warms, so we can expect more and hotter heat waves in the future.
“Scientists have linked many past heat waves to human-induced climate change. This means that the observed heat waves have become more likely or more intense because of human greenhouse gas emissions.”
Global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, the destruction of forests and other human activities. The International Energy Agency advised last year that from this year no new gas, oil or coal development would take place if the world limited global warming to 1.5°C.
Lo said society also needs to adapt to extreme heat. “We … have to adapt to heat in the long run. This includes designing homes, schools and hospitals that are well ventilated and prevent overheating, create more greenery and parks in cities and make heat warnings accessible to everyone.”