The Climate Crisis Is A Public Health Emergency, New Report Warns

Heatwaves, drought, wildfires and infectious disease threaten to undermine decades of gains in global public health.

Climate change is already wreaking havoc on public health around the globe and the impacts will continue to mount as the crisis fuels prolonged heatwaves, extreme weather events and infectious disease, according to a new report published Wednesday by top medical journal The Lancet.

The Lancet Countdown is a comprehensive annual assessment tracking links between climate change and human health. This year’s report outlines how two potential emissions pathways ― business-as-usual and meeting the goals of the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement ― will impact human well-being. It finds that without immediate action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change “will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives” and “challenge already overwhelmed health systems.”

Renee Salas, an emergency medicine doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital and lead author of an accompanying brief focused on U.S. impacts, told reporters this week that the crisis is “one of the most pressing health emergencies.”

“With every degree of warming, a child born today faces a future where their health and well-being will be increasingly impacted by the realities and dangers of a warmer world,” she said. “Climate change and the air pollution from fossil fuels that are driving it threatens the child’s health starting in the mother’s womb and only accumulates from there.”

The last four years were the four hottest on record, with 2018 coming in fourth behind 2016, 2015 and 2017. Globally, an additional 220 million people age 65 or older were exposed to heatwaves last year, topping the previous record of 209 million in 2015, according to findings. Rising temperatures are having major implications on the global labor force, resulting in an estimated 133.6 billion lost work hours in 2018 ― up from 88.5 billion in 2000.

Global warming has caused a spike in infectious disease, including the mosquito-borne tropical virus dengue fever. According to the report, 9 of the 10 most suitable years for the transmission of dengue have occurred since 2000. Additionally, the number of days suitable for Vibrio, a pathogen that can cause diarrheal disease and infection, have doubled since the early 1980s. Children are among those most susceptible to such diseases.

A municipal worker fumigates a store against the aedes aegypti mosquito, vector of dengue fever, Zika fever and chikunguya, in Caracas, Venezuela.
A municipal worker fumigates a store against the aedes aegypti mosquito, vector of dengue fever, Zika fever and chikunguya, in Caracas, Venezuela.
YURI CORTEZ via Getty Images

The 48-page analysis also documents the increasing threat of wildfires and the impact of climate change on crop yields. Seventy-seven percent of all countries saw an increase in human exposures to wildfire between 2015 to 2018, compared to the period between 2001 and 2014. The potential health effects from wildfires are extensive, from death and injury to respiratory problems from smoke inhalation. Meanwhile, drought, extreme weather and other factors have led to a decline in yield potential for major crops like soybeans, rice and wheat, putting millions at risk for food insecurity and nutrient deficiencies.

The number of premature deaths from ambient air pollution in in 2016 remained steady from 2015 to 2016, at an estimated 2.9 million globally.

Nick Watts, a medical doctor and executive director of Lancet Countdown, noted that the global average life expectancy is 71 years, meaning a child born today could by the end of their life experience a world that is 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

“We have no idea what that looks like from a public health perspective, but we know it is catastrophic,” he said during a press call. “We know that it has the potential to undermine the last 50 years of gains in public health.”

Here in the U.S., heatwaves are becoming more frequent and severe, according to the companion policy brief. This has led to an increase in exposures among adults age 65 and older and an estimated 81.4 million lost labor hours in 2018 alone, with agriculture and industry among the most impacted sectors. Last year, 14 climate- and weather-related disasters in the U.S. caused $91 billion in damages, the fourth-highest annual total since 1980. Those disasters include a string of devastating wildfires in California and hurricanes Florence and Michael.

Over 64,000 premature deaths in the U.S. in 2016 were linked to fine particulate pollution.

Forensic anthropologists Kyra Stull (L) and Tatiana Vlemincq walk through a trailer park destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, on Nov. 17, 2018.
Forensic anthropologists Kyra Stull (L) and Tatiana Vlemincq walk through a trailer park destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, on Nov. 17, 2018.
Terray Sylvester / Reuters

Along with warning about the consequences of inaction, the report alternatively lays out what could be gained by fulfilling the goals of the Paris accord, which aims to stave off the worst impacts of climate change by keeping the global temperature well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. It notes that a child born today would see a complete phase-out of coal in the United Kingdom by their sixth birthday and global emissions reach net zero by the time they turn 31.

“The changes seen in this alternate pathway could result in cleaner air, safer cities, and more nutritious food, coupled with renewed investment in health systems and vital infrastructure,” the report states.

The assessment, which includes research from 35 academic institutions, comes against a backdrop of massive youth-led protests to demand swift climate action and growing calls in the United States for a Green New Deal, an ambitious federal policy to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The surge in activism stems from a dire United Nations report late last year that warned world governments had just 12 years to prevent potentially irreversible climate change.

In a video posted last month by independent film studio Rubber Republic, Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of The Lancet journal, said the world’s doctors and other health professionals “have a responsibility, an obligation to engage in all kinds of nonviolent, social protest to address the climate emergency.”

“Children are marching in the streets because they recognize that their health and wellbeing and quality of life are being robbed,” Salas told reporters this week.

“Acting on climate change is a prescription for health,” she said.

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