Climate change is “first and foremost a health crisis,” and the negative effects of extreme heat, wildfires and droughts on people are “varied and widespread,” according to a new report.
In a climate report released this week, researchers with the medical journal The Lancet warned that the warming climate “will affect every U.S. region” and there is “no safe global temperature rise from a health perspective.”
The annual report looked at three interrelated hazards that are amplified by climate change — heat, droughts and wildfires — and the threats they pose to humans, from worsening mental health to increased risk of heart and lung issues.
“While everyone’s health is already at risk, some populations bear a greater burden,” the report said, noting that “decades of racially biased policies” place Black, Latinx, Asian and Native people, as well as low-income communities, at disproportionately high risk amid the climate crisis.
2020 saw the second highest amount of heat wave exposure in the United States since 1986, the report says. As climate change has increased the frequency, duration and intensity of heat waves, research shows that being exposed to extreme heat can lead to low-quality sleep, worse mental health and heat-related illness or exacerbated chronic illness, such as cardiovascular or pulmonary issues.
Communities of color, poor communities, outdoor workers and incarcerated people are disproportionately exposed to extreme heat due to “policy failures,” the report said.
Last year was tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record, according to an analysis from NASA. The past seven years have been the hottest ever recorded on the planet.
This summer, a record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest killed hundreds of people and left agriculture workers — many of them undocumented — suffering through 100-plus degree days to get food on people’s tables.
Black and Latinx workers experience about 35 to 45 days with temperatures above 90, while white workers experience about 25 to 30 such days, according to a September report from the Adrienne-Arsht Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.
A drought is broadly defined as a water shortage that can’t meet demand. It can harm people by decreasing crop yields and worsening food insecurity; exacerbating mental health issues; and reducing water quality and access, particularly for Indigenous communities that depend on water systems in rural areas or may be more vulnerable to urban shut-offs.
California is under a drought emergency after the state — which had already been plagued by some of its worst droughts and wildfires in recent years — just recorded its driest year in nearly a century. The 2021 water year, which ran from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021, saw the least amount of rainfall since 1924.
Record-breaking wildfires tore through Northern California in August, including the Dixie fire, the largest single fire in state history. Smoke from the massive fire reached all the way to the East Coast, affecting air quality in states throughout the country.
Wildfire smoke contains numerous harmful air pollutants, according to the Lancet report, and increased exposure can lead to a higher risk of heart and lung disease, poor mental health and a greater risk of preterm birth.
Eight of the 10 largest fires in California history took place in just the last five years. This year so far, 2.5 million acres have burned across the state, nearly twice as much as the five-year average.
“The long-predicted consequences of climate change are unfolding,” the report said, urging governments and corporations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to help save lives.