Killer heatwaves to blight developed world

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The Independent Online

Killer heatwaves will take a greater toll as the population grows older and the climate warms, according to a major study on global disasters.

Killer heatwaves will take a greater toll as the population grows older and the climate warms, according to a major study on global disasters.

The developed world can expect to suffer the devastating effects of even hotter summers than the one last year in Europe, which is estimated to have killed up to 35,000 people.

A report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warns that more extreme heatwaves can be added to the long list of natural and man-made disasters that will affect the world in the coming decades. Extreme summer temperatures in the developed world will be one of the extra problems affecting humanity in the 21st century, said Markku Niskala, secretary general of the federation. "The face of disasters is changing. Soaring urban populations, environmental degradation, poverty and disease are compounding seasonal hazards such as droughts and floods," he said. "The developed world faces new threats too. Five degrees more summer heat than usual triggered a disaster that shamed modern, wealthy societies across Europe in 2003. Up to 35,000 elderly and vulnerable people suffered silent, lonely deaths, abandoned by state welfare systems in retreat."

Although heatwaves in wealthy, industrialised countries often kill thousands of people they are rarely seen as natural disasters, the World Disasters Report 2004 says.

"People in temperate countries find it hard to imagine heat as a disaster. With floods or hurricanes you can see the damage in a matter of minutes or hours. With heat, usually the worst to happen is that roads buckle, trains derail and livestock die," the report says.

Yet in Europe last summer thousands of mostly elderly people became seriously ill and died as a result of soaring temperatures.

The report comes as the environment takes centre stage in Europe when the Queen opens a high-profile conference in Berlin on Wednesday, which will set out an agenda for bilateral co-operation on climate change for the next 10 years.

The Berlin summit, which will be attended by Jürgen Trittin, Germany's Green Environment Minister, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, and Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, comes a day after the US elections and will prepare recommendations to Tony Blair for Britain's presidency of the G8 next year.

There were unconfirmed reports yesterday that the Queen had made a rare foray into politics and warned Mr Blair of her grave concerns about the Bush administration's stance on global warming. Her worries are believed to be shared by the German government.

John Schellnhuber, a former chief scientist to the German government and current research director of Britain's Tyndall Centre for climate change research, will also attend. "If John Kerry wins, there might be a better chance of an open dialogue; there might be a feeling we can start again," he said.

"If Bush wins, then we will have to wait and see."