For many people, the climate crisis feels like a far off apocalypse that has not begun to affect us yet – but they couldn’t be more wrong.
The UK is seeing hotter temperatures and heavier rain, while illnesses and conditions caused by long-term air pollution exposure are ravaging the population.
Average global temperatures have risen by more than 1°C since the 1850s, and 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 were the hottest years ever recorded.
Unless we drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we are likely to see 2°C further of warming, with the planet set to have heated up by a whopping 4°C at the end of this century.
Those of us living in the west are luckier – climate change is affecting developing countries far worse, and they have fewer resources to tackle it.
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t seeing the effects already, every single day.
Changes in the temperature of the planet are thought to be affecting the size and weight of humans, because being smaller helps you survive better in hot climates.
And 2°C of global warming reduces the weight of somebody weighing 9.5 stone by 2.2lbs on average, a study suggested.
Researchers at Cambridge University discovered that human body sizes vary depending on the temperatures they live in.
Colder, harsher climates make the average body size bigger, while warmer temperatures shrink it – and this is thought to be because bigger bodies retain more heat, while being smaller allows a human to cool down and release more heat.
Professor Andrea Manica, who worked on the study, explained: “Our study indicates that climate – particularly temperature – has been the main driver of changes in body size for the past million years.
“We can see from people living today that those in warmer climates tend to be smaller, and those living in colder climates tend to be bigger.”
But scientists add that it’s hard to say how much of a part other factors such as advancements in medicine and nutrition have played in the changes in our body size.
Wild weather – unbearable heat and flash floods
One effect of climate change we are already seeing even in the UK is more extreme weather conditions.
The UK is likely to have hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters, with worrying events like heatwaves and heavy rainfall becoming much more frequent.
This means we will be more susceptible to flash flooding, which can force people out of their homes and destroy their houses and livelihoods.
What’s more, the highest temperature in European history appears to have hit Sicily last month, reported to be 48.8C.
And our infrastructure isn’t ready for much more rain, with bridges and sewers under immense pressure to manage enormous amounts of water, facing collapse.
Nearly four in 10 people (39%) live within 100 kilometres from a shoreline and are at risk of flooding if sea levels continue to rise, says the Met Office.
Last year was one of the UK’s warmest and sunniest but also wettest on record – with figures going back more than 100 years.
A Royal Meteorological Society report found 2020 was the third warmest, fifth wettest and eighth sunniest on record, making it the first year that has been in the all-time top 10 for all three.
Mike Kendon, senior climate scientist at the Met Office National Climate Information Centre, who worked on the study, said: “The UK’s climate is already changing.
“The warming that we see is broadly consistent with what we see globally… and our climate seems to be getting wetter as well as warmer, and that’s consistent with our broad understanding of the process [of climate change].”
Richard Allan, professor of climate science at Reading University, added: “Very wet periods and associated flooding are becoming more severe as higher greenhouse gas levels warm the air, increasing the moisture that fuels storms.
“A more thirsty atmosphere also dries the ground more effectively, intensifying the already hotter spells and making our weather more extreme.”
Climate change has been a key factor in the terrifying increase in wildfires around the world, as drier, hotter land causes fires to spread further and faster.
Last year, California saw its worst fire season since records began, while the Amazon rainforest experienced its third-largest fire of all time.
Fires hit many other countries including Indonesia, North American, Siberia and Australia – which saw 34 people killed and 13 million acres of land destroyed in a weeks-long blaze in 2020.
Greg Mullins, Australia’s fire commissioner-turned climate change campaigner told The Guardian : “It’s going to be a very, very dangerous place to live – not Australia, planet Earth.
“I’m deeply worried about my grandsons and what they’re inheriting from us.”
He added: “The whole world is burning at the same time… We need to take action on emissions.”
And it’s a vicious cycle, as wildfires are thought to be a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions – and are also responsible for 5-8% of the 3.3 million annual premature deaths from poor air quality, according to researchers.
Heatwaves are currently the number one weather-related cause of death, and between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress, says the World Health Organisation.
High air temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, particularly among elderly people, says the WHO.
And high temperatures also raise the levels of ozone and other pollutants in the air that exacerbate cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Pollen and other aeroallergen levels are higher in extreme heat – which can trigger asthma attacks.
When temperatures are above 30°C for two or more days, it can trigger a public health warning – and this could happen four times a year in the 2070s, it’s predicted – 16 times more often than in the 1990s.
It’s thought outbreaks of the West Nile virus has correlated with higher temperatures, according to the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.
And the mosquito-borne illness, which can cause serious neurological disease, is more likely to sweep through the UK in the next 20-30 years due to climate change.
Higher temperatures can also increase many food and water-borne illnesses transmitted through insects, snails and other cold-blooded animals, with malaria rates believed to rise with the temperature.
Heavy rainfall also tends to make the rat population explode in numbers, as seen in Pamana in 1999, sparking an outbreak of a fatal lung disease.
Droughts, heatwaves and extreme rain are also already affecting food prices and availability, while their transportation systems could also be damaged, potentially changing the types of food we are able to access in this country and thus our nutrition.
Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, with between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year attributed to long-term exposure.
There is strong evidence that air pollution causes the development of coronary heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and lung cancer, and exacerbates asthma.
Moreover, illnesses like Covid-19 are likely to spread again and just as fast, because coronaviruses and other respiratory illnesses believed to have come from bats and birds are skyrocketing.
And with their natural habitats being destroyed, animals hosting the viruses are moving closer and closer to humans – opening the door to more pandemics.
Christine Johnson, associate director of the One Health Institute at the University of California, warns: “Almost every major epidemic we know of over the past couple of decades — SARS, COVID-19, Ebola and Nipah virus – jumped to people from wildlife enduring extreme climate and habitat strain”.