The impact of climate change on health and mortality is intensifying globally, as revealed by a comprehensive study conducted by an international team of 114 researchers. The report, published in The Lancet, presents some alarming findings.
The climate crisis reveals itself through various pathways, including worsening food insecurity, spreading climate-sensitive diseases, and escalating frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. These factors, combined, place unprecedented strains on the world’s health systems and demand immediate and comprehensive action.
Heat-related deaths among individuals over 65 have surged by 85% since the 1990s, based on models that consider both temperature changes and demographic shifts. This age group, along with infants, is particularly susceptible to health risks such as heat stroke. With the rise in global temperatures, these vulnerable groups are now exposed to double the number of heat-wave days per year compared to the period from 1986 to 2005.
The report also examines the economic and food security implications of climate change. In 2022, extreme heat exposure, leading to productivity losses or work incapacity, may have resulted in income losses amounting to as much as $863 billion globally. Furthermore, heatwaves and droughts in 2021 led to an estimated 127 million more people experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity, compared to the period from 1981 to 2010.
Marina Romanello, a researcher at University College London and the executive director of the report, known as The Lancet Countdown, expressed concern over the lost years of climate action and the enormous health cost it has incurred. She emphasized that the loss of life and the impacts experienced by people are irreversible.
Climate Change Health Impact
The Lancet Countdown Report tracked climate change health indicators for nine years, revealing concerning results. It reports an 88% rise in heat-related deaths in US adults aged 65+ from 2018-2022 compared to 2000-04. Approximately 23,200 older Americans died from extreme heat in 2022 alone.
Dr. Renee Salas, an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and a co-author of the report, likens the project to monitoring a patient’s vital signs, but on a national and international scale. The data collected is crucial for informing federal policy decisions.
However, Dr. John Balbus, director of the office of Climate Change and Health Equity in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, notes that the report primarily measures exposure to climate-related risks rather than actual health outcomes, such as disease rates. To bridge this gap, he advocates for increased investment in research.
The report also includes future projections for the first time. If global average temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, heat-related deaths could increase by 370% by mid-century. On a positive note, the report found that deaths from air pollution related to fossil fuels have decreased by 15% since 2005, largely due to reduced coal-related pollution.
The report also highlights the increasing impact of climate change on food security and the spread of infectious diseases. Heatwaves and droughts have led to 127 million more people experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity in 122 countries in 2021, compared to the annual numbers seen between 1981 and 2010.
Warmer seas have expanded the world’s coastline suitable for the spread of Vibrio bacteria, putting a record 1.4 billion people at risk of diarrhoeal disease, severe wound infections, and sepsis.
Climate-driven health action
Addressing the climate crisis requires a comprehensive approach that prioritizes health. By focusing on health, we can potentially save millions of lives each year and promote health equity. This approach respects the human right to health, which is closely linked to the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
The World Health Organization (WHO) fully supports the call to action outlined in the Lancet Countdown Report. It is crucial that we strengthen climate resilience and advocate for low-carbon and sustainable pathways. To turn the tide on the current crises, we need to invest in sustainable, climate-resilient health, food, water, and sanitation systems that are accessible to everyone.
The WHO encourages governments to lead the charge in a just, equitable, and swift transition away from fossil fuels towards clean and renewable energy sources. This transition will not only help mitigate climate change but also improve air quality for 99% of the global population, reducing the harmful effects of air pollution.
As the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change approaches next month in the United Arab Emirates, the WHO invites all nations to place health at the heart of international climate action. We must collaborate to ensure a prosperous future for all, with a focus on safeguarding the health and wellbeing of present and future generations.
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