The impacts of climate change in the UK and beyond

17 Apr 2018
7 min read
Impacts of Climate Change in the UK

The Impacts of Climate Change are already being felt around the world but also right here in the UK.

In general, the UK is experiencing hotter, drier summers and wetter, milder winters and these impacts will become more pronounced as temperatures increase due to global warming.

In terms of the biggest impact on people, wildlife and the economy; water is key

As well as hotter weather, there is also an increase in the number and severity of extreme weather events, such as floods and storms that cause huge disruption, financial loss and risk to life. The Met Office recently released its ‘State of the UK Climate’ report showing how the UK has broken a number of climate-related records in recent times, and it’s no cause for celebration.

This video explains how the warmer the UK becomes the greater the impacts and costs of global warming will be to us.

An Overview of the Impacts of Climate Change on the UK and Around the World

There is a range of impacts caused by a warming world but in terms of the biggest impact on people, wildlife and the economy; water is key. Ironically, either too much or too little. As well as droughts and downpours, the world is seeing an increase in heat waves, pest and diseases, wildfires and superstorms. A brief overview of each is provided below but adapting to these impacts offers a way to reduce the risk they pose and increase resilience. 

Heat Waves Caused by Climate Change

Heat waves are five consecutive days with temperatures above average maximum temperatures by 5 degrees C. Heat stroke is common in the UK during hot weather because we are not use to extremely hot weather. Pregnant women, children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to overheating because their bodies have a reduced ability to cool down and overheating is exacerbated by hot sticky nights. 

Everyone can take measures to keep cool. Staying out of the summer sun by finding shade or staying indoors, loose clothing and frequent sips on cool water are just a few pointers. For more information on heat waves visit the Red Cross or NHS.

Drought Due to Global Warming

Rainfall levels are generally reducing with global warming therefore, demand for water is increasingly exceeding supply. In the UK, water shortages are not unusual with hose pipe bans a recent memory for most people. Rainfall over winter fills up the reservoirs and underground aquifers that supply the mains drinking water. Dry winters result in reduced stores of water, which combined with summer droughts and increased demand, lead to water shortages. There is a twenty percent probability that demand could outstrip supply here in the UK by 2050.

Hotter summers result in drier soil and gardens so more water is needed to irrigate crops and flowers.  Drought also impacts wildlife. For example, climate change increases danger for bees as they rely on plants that are impacted by drought.

Cape Town in 2018 became the first modern city to almost run out of water but there are plenty of other cities around the world at risk. Long-term water shortages look set to grow and ‘water wars’ becomes increasingly a reality. The World Water Development Report states that more than 5 billion people could suffer water shortages by 2050 due to climate change, increased demand and polluted supplies.

Forest Fires and Global Warming

Burning forest

Due to long periods without rain during summer, woodlands and particularly the undergrowth are dry so if a fire starts, these drought conditions prove ideal for wild fires. The fires can be started by a spark, arson or often lightening and can spread fast if the flames are fanned by high winds. The wood provides fuel for the fire and so the fire rapidly spreads between trees unless it is contained by large gaps between woodland (fire breaks) or water is used to drench the flames. Forest fires can burn for a long time particularly, where woodlands are remote and unmanaged as there is nothing to block the spread and there is a lot of fuel to burn through.

Hurricanes and Super Storms Strengthened by Global Warming

Whilst it is unusual for hurricanes to hit the UK, it is not unheard of. However, the UK does feel the aftermath of hurricanes, with strong winds and heavy rain.  The warmer the ocean, the more powerful hurricanes become. As temperatures increase, more devastation is unleashed as hurricanes, or typhoons as the cyclones are also called, become bigger and therefore they last for longer over land. Warmer air also holds more water so rainfall can be particularly heavy, even during summer months and cause flash flooding.

Flooding from Climate Change

Snorkelling cow

In the UK one in six properties are at risk of flooding. Around the world 1.2 billion people are at risk of flooding according to the OECD. However, in the next few decades that figure is due to increase to nearly 1 in 5 people on the planet and the economic value of assets at risk is estimated at US$45 trillion by 2050.

Flooding also impacts farm land and food can not be grown on fields that are covered in water.

As an island nation we have many communities that live alongside the coast or rivers for whom flooding is already a reality. However, it’s not just coastal communities at risk. Around half of all flooding is from surface water so it’s important to check if your home is at risk of flooding.

Global Warming Causes Sea Level Rise

Sand and sea from above the waters edge, UK

Sea levels are rising and combine this with stronger storms, people are starting to move away from once desirable coastal properties. Sea level rise is measured accurately using satellites and is currently 3mm a year. But more importantly the rate is also increasing because when water is warmed it expands and as temperatures increase in the sea and atmosphere, ice melts.

Some of our low lying coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise such as the Fens and the Somerset Levels. Many countries around the world are low lying such as the Netherlands, Bangladesh and states such as Florida.  At the end of this century, a one-meter increase in sea levels is not unlikely. Sea level rise is completely game changing as most cities were built alongside water and it is simply not possible to build a sea wall around the length of the coast.

Polar scientists explain why Arctic ice melt matters

Health Impacts of Climate Change

In general, the UK is experiencing hotter, drier summers and wetter, milder winters. This in turn has knock on impacts on human health such as heat stroke. The Lancet Commission described climate change as the greatest risk to health. There are also mental health issues after flooding and other environmental disasters. Plus, the ongoing and serious health issues caused by air pollution from petrol and diesel vehicles. Overseas, climate change lengthens the transmission period and geographical range for many diseases such as malaria.

Economic Impacts of Climate Change

The financial cost of global warming is massive and continues to grow. The 2016 floods cost the UK £1.6 billion. The World Economic Forum says climate change is the greatest risk to economic stability.  In addition a significant amount of property in the world is not insured therefore considerable financial harm is caused to people and countries each year by ‘natural events.’

Migration, Development and Conflict: The Unjust Consequence of Global Warming

Climate Change is already the greatest driver of migration and this will increase as impacts such as droughts, hurricanes and rising sea levels force people to abandon their homes. Global warming also aggravates existing conflicts as tensions are exacerbated by resource shortages.

The irony is those who had the least to do with causing global warming are the hardest hit. Those who are the poorest in the world are the least able to adapt and weather out the storm. In particular women, who are often responsible for caring for families are disproportionately impacted, particularly when crops fail.  Global warming is undoing great work undertaken to eradicate poverty around the world.  

The Serious and Significant Effects of Climate Change

The impacts of climate change are happening around us every day and are steadily increasing. From flooding to heat waves, droughts and downpours; no one or no community is immune.

Climate Action is required to transition toward clean energy to keep the global temperature rise to below two degrees. This will limit the number of people who are flooded, made homeless or die due to climate change let alone the financial savings from taking action.

Therefore, we must start to adapt to these changes to protect property and people but we also must increase efforts to fix global warming as prevention is always better than cure.


The information in this article was correct at the time of writing and is provided for guidance only. Please see the full disclaimer in our terms and conditions.

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