The Reading Countdown

Climate change is damaging human health, and the effects are likely already being felt by Reading’s citizens. Media and political coverage of climate change typically revolves around looming natural disasters, volatile weather patterns, and melting polar ice. Accompanied by visuals of distant wildfires or displaced coastal communities, these effects often feel far from home or like an issue of the distant future. However, as a recent research initiative dubbed the Reading Countdown demonstrates, climate change is already being felt on a local level, putting increased pressure on the health of Reading’s residents and the town’s public health services.

The Reading Countdown, modelled after the global Lancet Countdown, is an initiative carried out by a team at the University of Reading, which aims to track changing climate in Reading as well as indicators of its impact on health. The project is spearheaded by Professor Elizabeth Robinson, member of the Lancet Countdown Board, and is the first town or city level “Countdown” which aims to directly demonstrate the connection between changing climate and local level public health.

A warming Reading

It will likely come as no surprise to Reading residents that summer temperatures, on average, have been rising over the past four decades. Along with climbing average temperatures, the frequency of heatwave events in Reading have also been on the rise. In Berkshire, the threshold for a “heatwave event” is at least three consecutive days with daily maximum temperatures exceeding 27 degrees Celsius, and in Reading, the number of such events occurring every year has tripled since the 1970’s.

Reading’s health

Heatwave events are far more than uncomfortable, they can lead to heatstroke, dehydration, and in the most severe cases, death. Several groups are at particular risk of heat related health complications, most notably older citizens, who suffer a considerably higher rate of mortality during heatwave events. In Reading, age is of particular importance as an indicator of local vulnerability to heat stress, as the proportion of the town’s population over 65 has been rising over the past decade. Those with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic kidney disease are also at increased risk of hospitalisation during heatwaves, all conditions currently on the rise in Reading.

Respiratory conditions, namely asthma and COPD, are also directly exacerbated by rising temperatures. This should raise particular concerns in Reading, where the mortality rate from respiratory diseases amongst those under 75, which are categorized as preventable, has started to increase since 2011, and has been consistently higher than the average in South East England since 2010.

Engagement in Reading

There is clear reason to be concerned about the growing impact of rising temperatures on Reading’s citizens. Despite this, discussion about the link between climate change and health has been surprisingly low.

As an indicator of public engagement, researchers examined the town’s most widely read local newspaper, The Reading Chronicle. Coverage of climate change between 2008-2018 averaged under 9 articles a year, until 2019 when reporting on activities such as the Extinction Rebellion and the declaration of a climate emergency by the Reading Borough Council led to a spike of 104 articles in a single year. Amongst all articles referencing climate change in the past 12 years, however, only 4% explicitly stated the link between health and climate change.

Mentions of this link were similarly low amongst Berkshire MPs in parliamentary debates. Climate change was mentioned in 129 of the 4895 debates participated in by Berkshire MPs since 2006. Of these, the link between climate change and health was indirectly made only 14 times, and explicitly only twice. Discussion was largely dominated by national level climate issues and legislation, with only three references to Berkshire-specific issues.

Reading’s response

That is not to say that the town of Reading is sitting idly by as rising global temperatures damage the health of its citizens. Between 2005 and 2018, Reading reduced its CO2 emissions by 46%, a larger percentage decrease than England as a whole, most of which can be attributed to a drop in emissions related to electricity generation. Emissions from the transportation sector have also fallen, but at a slower rate (18%). This is important, as transport emissions are more strongly associated with air quality and negative health impacts on the local level and may explain a rise in mortality attributed to air pollution seen in Reading since 2015.

Reading has, however, taken steps to further reduce its transportation emissions and thus reduce local air pollution. Most notably, Reading has invested in 35 electric vehicle chargers per 100,000 people (as opposed to 31 per 100,000 across England), 62 bio-gas powered buses, and 21 hybrid buses. Bus journeys in Reading have also increased, as opposed to a general decline in England as a whole.

What more can be done?

Findings of the Reading Countdown strongly support an increased focus on the impacts of climate change on local level health. In addition to continued monitoring of climate and health indicators, Reading and its citizens should continue to strive to reduce the town’s contribution to climate change and simultaneously improve local public health through steps such as:

  1. Encouraging walking and cycling. This reduces carbon and particulate emissions while improving individual health.
  2. Promoting the use and continued political support for electric vehicles. Whilst electric vehicles may use electricity from non-renewable sources, they do not pollute the local environment.
  3. Ensuring that public transport is an affordable, efficient, and reliable alternative to private car use.
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