Climate change to kill thousands, ministers warned

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The Independent Online

A Government report to be published today warns that climate changes over the next 50 years will cause death and destruction on a major scale in Britain unless preventive action is taken now.

A Government report to be published today warns that climate changes over the next 50 years will cause death and destruction on a major scale in Britain unless preventive action is taken now.

Rising sea levels and severe storms are likely to cause "catastrophic" flooding, devastating tens of thousands of homes, according to the first official assessment of the effect of global warming on health.

Hotter summers are expected to result in 30,000 extra cases of skin cancer (unless pollution can be cut), 10,000 extra cases of food poisoning and an extra 3,000 lives lost in heatwaves. But warmer winters will reduce the toll of deaths among the elderly caused by the cold, saving an estimated 20,000 lives a year.

The report, by the Expert Group on Climate Change and Health, is to be launched by the Government's chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson. A draft of the report, seen by The Independent, says climate change will have a "significant effect" on health over the next half century and anexpanded research programme should be put in place "as a matter of urgency".

It has been scheduled for publication, and delayed, three times since last October. Sources fear the warnings in the final version may have been diluted to avoid public alarm.

One of the greatest threats comes from the anticipated rise in sea levels as a result of the melting of the Arctic ice-cap, and the increase in the frequency of severe winter storms.

In the last 13 years, Britain has experienced three winter storms of a severity that would normally be expected once every 200 years.

The report says the flooding of low-lying coastal areas will become more likely as a result of rising sea levels and storm surges. "Flooding that spreads inland from coastal areas may be catastrophic," it says, leaving "perhaps tens of thousands of people" temporarily homeless. Local NHS resources "could be overwhelmed".

That finding will raise a critical policy question of whether to spend billions of pounds on concrete flood defences or acknowledge that some coastal regions are indefensible and should be abandoned.

Malaria could become established in low-lying salt marsh districts of Britain in 50 years, as it was at the start of the last century. But the bigger threat will come from travellers returning from countries which are expected to see a significant increase in the severest type of the disease caused by Plasmodium falciparum. This dangerous type of malaria is unlikely to become established in Britain because the conditions are unsuitable for the species of mosquito that carries it.

All the figures in the report are estimates and could be reduced if action is taken, it says. The 30,000 extra cases of skin cancer assume that no progress is made on reducing pollution which damages the ozone layer. If the commitments made in the Montreal convention and the Copenhagen amendments are met, this could be reduced to 5,000 extra cases, it says.

It also warns that a death caused cannot necessarily be balanced against a life saved. The 20,000 deaths that might be avoided as a result of warmer winters would be mostly among the elderly and vulnerable who would be likely to die anyway in a few months. Against that, fewer younger people may die of skin cancer but each one may lose decades of potential life.

The government report comes as the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change prepares to finalise its third report on the global outlook next week.

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