Climate change continues to have a worsening effect on health and mortality around the world, according to a comprehensive report released Tuesday by an international team of 114 researchers.
One of the clearest findings is that heat-related deaths of people over 65 have increased by 85 percent since the 1990s, according to models that incorporate both temperature changes and demographic changes. People in this age group, along with babies, are especially vulnerable to health risks such as heat stroke. As global temperatures have risen, older people and babies are now exposed to twice as many heat wave days per year as between 1986 and 2005.
The report, published in the medical journal The Lancet, also tracked estimated income loss and food insecurity. Globally, exposure to extreme heat and subsequent productivity losses or inability to work may have led to income losses of up to $863 billion in 2022. And, in 2021, an estimated 127 million more people experienced insecurity moderate or severe food security related to heat waves and droughts, compared to the period 1981-2010.
“We have lost very valuable years of climate action and that has come at a huge health cost,” said Marina Romanello, a researcher at University College London and executive director of the report, known as The Lancet Countdown. “The loss of life, the impact that people experience, is irreversible.”
The public health indicators analyzed in the report have generally declined during the nine years that the researchers have compiled. evaluation editions.
The analysis also examined health outcomes for individual countries, including the United States. Heat-related deaths of adults aged 65 and older increased 88 percent between 2018 and 2022, compared to the period 2000-04. An estimated 23,200 older Americans died in 2022 due to exposure to extreme heat.
For health professionals, statistics are neither abstract nor anonymous.
“These numbers remind me of the elderly patients I care for in my own hospital with heatstroke,” said Dr. Renee Salas, an emergency physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Salas is one of the report’s co-authors and said she saw the project as tracking a patient’s vital signs, but on a national and international scale.
The data can help fill a gap for federal policymakers.
“We have a limited set of indicators for climate change and health that are routinely collected in the United States,” said Dr. John Balbus, director of the office of climate change and health equity at the Department of Health and Human Services. of the United States. He did not contribute to this report and is not currently involved in The Lancet Countdown, but previously served as a scientific advisor to the project’s funder.
Dr. Balbus cautioned that this report primarily measures people’s exposure to climate-related risks rather than actual health outcomes, such as disease rates. For exposures to produce real health outcomes, he said, more investment in research is needed.
For the first time, this year’s Lancet Countdown included projections for the future. If the global average temperature rises by 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial temperatures, an increasingly likely future unless society significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, the number of heat-related deaths each year will increase by 370 percent by the middle of this century. found the report.
At the same time, researchers point out that reducing fossil fuel pollution is proving beneficial for global health. Deaths from fossil fuel-related air pollution have decreased by 15 percent since 2005, and most of that improvement is the result of less carbon-related pollution entering the atmosphere.
The value of The Lancet Countdown is its continued tracking of the effects of climate change on global health, said Sharon Friel, director of the Planetary Health Equity Hothouse at the Australian National University.
Dr. Friel was not involved in the report, but he read it and wrote an accompanying comment.
Dr. Howard Frumkin, former special assistant to the director for climate change and health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the report was a valuable panel, but the climate impacts he was most concerned about were not the obvious ones. highlighted. Researchers and policymakers should pay attention to the health effects of people who are displaced by climate change and migrate, Dr. Frumkin said.
“If you’re receiving cancer chemotherapy or if you’re receiving kidney dialysis or if you’re receiving addiction treatment and you have to move suddenly, that’s terribly disturbing and threatening,” he said. Dr. Frumkin was not involved in the new report, but was a co-author of earlier editions.
Over the years, health experts involved in this project have included more research on the continued use of fossil fuels as the root cause of health problems.
“The diagnosis of this report is very clear,” said Dr. Salas. “Further expansion of fossil fuels is reckless and the data clearly shows that it threatens the health and well-being of all people.”
Researchers point out that health care systems and other social infrastructures that health care depends on have not adapted quickly enough to our current level of global warming.
“If we haven’t been able to deal with the situation today, we probably won’t be able to do so in the future,” Dr. Romanello said.
The report is likely to be discussed at the annual United Nations climate summit in the United Arab Emirates that begins in a few weeks. This year the summit will include a greater focus on human health.