Over 20,000 died in western Europe’s summer heatwaves, figures show
This year’s temperatures would have been virtually impossible without climate crisis, scientists say
More than 20,000 people died across western Europe in this summer’s heatwaves, in temperatures that would have been virtually impossible without climate breakdown, figures show.
Analysis of excess deaths, the difference between the number of deaths that happened and those expected based on historical trends, reveals the threats posed by climate change-induced global heating, scientists said.
During the summer heatwaves temperatures exceeded 40C (104F) in London, areas in south-west France reached 42C and Seville and Córdoba in Spain set records of 44C. Analysis from 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 1 June and 7 September, according to the Office for National Statistics – 6.2% higher than the five-year average.
The analysis does not estimate heat-related deaths specifically, but the number of deaths was higher on average for heat-period days than non-heat-period days. Covid-19 deaths were excluded.
In France, there were 10,420 excess deaths reported during the summer months, according to data released by Santé Publique France, the government health agency.
One in four of these deaths, or 2,816, happened during one of the three intense heatwaves that hit the country. The excess deaths were 20% higher in regions where extreme temperature red alerts had been issued.
In Spain, the state-backed Carlos III Health Institute estimates there were 4,655 heat-attributable deaths between June and August.
The Robert Koch Institute, the German government health agency, estimates 4,500 people died in the country during the summer months specifically due to extreme temperatures.
Dr Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London, said: “Heatwaves are one of the biggest threats posed by climate change. High temperatures are responsible for thousands of deaths across the world every year, many of which go underreported.
“Despite this overwhelming evidence, there is still little public awareness of the dangers that extreme temperatures present to human health.”
The summer of 2022 was the hottest on record, according to the EU’s Copernicus climate change service.
Dr Eunice Lo, a research fellow in climate change and health at the University of Bristol, said: “Heatwaves are becoming more frequent and intense as the globe warms up, so we can expect more and hotter heatwaves in future.
“Scientists have linked many past heatwaves to human-induced climate change. This means that observed heatwaves have been made more likely to occur or more intense because of human emissions of greenhouse gases.”
Global heating is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, forest destruction and other human activities. The International Energy Agency advised last year that no new gas, oil or coal development could take place from this year onwards if the world was to limit global heating to 1.5C.
Lo said there was also a need for society to adapt to extreme heat. “We … need to adapt to heat in the long term. This includes designing homes, schools and hospitals that have good ventilation and prevent overheating, increasing green space and parks in cities, and making heat warnings accessible to all.”
cover photo: A firefighter tackles a blaze in a wheat field in the province of Zamora, Spain, in July. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/Reuters