Photo: Hot Ivy from Scott Cawley Flickr photo stream

Heat kills.  We have known this for some time.  Whenever a heatwave occurs, an increase in excess deaths occurs. The European heatwaves of 2003 witnessed an excess of 75,000 deaths, with 15,000 of those occurring in France alone. The World Health Organisation reported for 2015 that 175 million more people were affected by heatwaves than had been expected.  If current trends in rising temperatures continue then we can expect by the beginning of the next century that 74% of the world’s populations will be exposed to dangerous, if not potentially lethal, levels of heat and humidity, unless something is done to address levels of carbon emissions.

The summer of 2022 will perhaps go down as the summer that we finally realise the need to do something about climate change. Despite the performative protestations of right-wing media pundits that this summer in the United Kingdom is comparable to the heatwaves of 1976, and we should have no truck with lefty woke whinging about heat, rather we should head out and have fun in the sun, what we are experiencing now is of a completely different scale to 1976. This summer we have seen wildfires in England which have destroyed housing in Wennington Greater London, (if the winds had been stronger the destruction could have been much worse). Heat records are being continually broken with almost every year a new high temperature, pushing further into the 40°s, being recorded.

Heat kills in a number of ways, especially if combined with high humidity.  For example, our cardiovascular systems can be placed under great stress, medication for mental health can deteriorate in heat leading to increases in suicide, and for older people, dehydration can be fatal.  However, not everyone is affected similarly.  As with all health issues, the playing field is never level.  The intersections of class and ethnicity mean that working-class people and people of colour are placed at a higher level of risk of heat-related harm than affluent white elements of a society.

Some of the reasons for heat and health inequality echo many of the drivers that we witnessed in the COVID-19 pandemic: access to resources and housing conditions.  It is well established that greenspaces, such as parks and gardens, are cooler than surrounding built up areas offering shade and the opportunity for some relief from the persistent heat. But not everyone has equal access to greenspaces. As we saw in the pandemic, access to parks and to private gardens is yet another material aspect of social inequality. Poorer people are also more at risk from what is called the heat-island effect, which refers to how the built-environment of urban areas raises the temperature above surrounding rural areas. The layout of streets and their built materials, such as concrete and a lack of tress, function to trap and condense heat, leading to raised temperatures, especially at night.  Working-class areas tend to exhibit less green vegetation and greater density of housing and the building materials that absorb heat.

But these inequalities of resources do not arise out of nowhere.  They are the cumulative effect of generations of structural inequalities.  Eric Kinenberg identified many of these issues in his classic social autopsy of the 1995 Chicago heatwaves. His book provides essential reading for understanding how the subtle and insidious local and long-term historical processes weave together to make people of colour and working-class people more vulnerable to the predations of heat.  For example, the 1995 Chicago heatwave saw five days of heat that exceeded 32 centigrade at night. The actual death toll for the heatwave is hard to establish, but the African-American communities of neighbourhoods in North Lawnsdale experienced death rates 1.5 times higher than White Chicagoans.

For Klinenberg, this discrepancy in mortality rates was the result of decades of structural racism. Black neighbours had been abandoned by the city and employers, leading to long term-decline across black working class neighbourhoods, with a lack of public amenities and high levels of housing falling into disrepair. As a result, community cohesion had suffered and crime was high. As a consequence, people lacked neighbours to help them and older residents were apprehensive to leave their houses fearing they might be robbed. They died alone and isolated.  The heat therefore combined with long-term discrimination producing the higher death rates. As he said in an interview about the heatwave:

‘The heat wave was a particle accelerator for the city: It sped up and made visible the hazardous social conditions that are always present but difficult to perceive. Yes, the weather was extreme. But the deep sources of the tragedy were the everyday disasters that the city tolerates, takes for granted, or has officially forgotten.’

Climate change is here, and it is real.  Heat and humidity will kill more and more people each year.  Heat-related deaths will add to the health inequalities we already see, becoming another form of social murder where the organisation of a society is to blame.