To the climate changes continue to have an aggravated impact on health and mortality worldwide, according to a report published this Tuesday, 14, by an international team of 114 researchers.
One of the most damning findings is that heat-related deaths of people over 65 have increased by 85% since the 1990s, according to models that incorporate demographic and temperature changes. People in this age group, along with babies, are especially vulnerable to health risks such as heatstroke.
As global temperatures have risen, older people and children are now exposed to twice the number of heat wave days annually as they were between 1986 and 2005.
The report, published in the renowned scientific journal The Lancet, also tracked estimated income loss and food insecurity. Globally, exposure to extreme heat and the resulting loss of productivity or inability to work may have led to income losses as high as $863 million in 2022. And in 2021, an additional 127 million people are estimated to have suffered from moderate or severe food insecurity linked to heat waves and droughts, compared to the period 1981 to 2010.
“We have lost very precious years of climate action and this has come at a huge cost to health,” said Marina Romanello, a researcher at University College London and executive director of the report, known as The Lancet Countdown. “The loss of life and the impact people experience is irreversible.”
The public health indicators tracked in the report have generally declined over the nine years that researchers have produced editions of the assessment.
The analysis also examined health outcomes for individual countries, including the United States. Heat-related deaths of adults ages 65 and older increased 88% between 2018 and 2022, compared with 2000 to 2004. An estimated 23,200 older Americans will die in 2022 due to exposure to extreme heat.
For healthcare professionals, statistics are not abstract. “These numbers remind me of the elderly patients I see in my hospital with heatstroke,” said Renee Salas, an emergency room physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
Renee is one of the report’s co-authors and said she sees the project as tracking a patient’s vital signs, but on a national and international scale.
The data could help fill a gap for federal policymakers. “We have a limited set of indicators on climate change and health that are routinely collected in the United States,” said John Balbus, director of the office of climate change and health equity at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 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 funder.
Balbus cautioned that the report primarily measures people’s exposure to climate-related risks rather than actual health outcomes such as disease rates. To move from exposures to 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°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures, an increasingly likely scenario, unless society significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, the number of deaths of people over 65 years related to heat will increase by 370% by the middle of this century (between 2041 and 2060).
At the same time, researchers emphasize that reducing fossil fuel pollution benefits global health. Deaths from fossil fuel-related air pollution have decreased by 15% since 2005, with most of that improvement the result of less coal-related pollution entering the atmosphere.
The value of The Lancet Countdown is the ongoing monitoring of the effects of climate change on global health, said Sharon Friel, director of the Planetary Health Equity Hothouse at the Australian National University. Friel was not involved in the report.
Howard Frumkin, former special assistant to the director for climate change and health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the report is a valuable dashboard, but that the climate impacts he was most concerned about were not the ones obvious highlights. Researchers and policymakers need to pay attention to the health effects of people displaced by climate change and migration, Frumkin said.
“If you’re undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, or you’re undergoing kidney dialysis, or you’re undergoing treatment for drug addiction, and you have to move suddenly, that’s terribly upsetting and threatening,” he said. Frumkin was not involved in the new report but was a co-author on previous editions.
Over the years, health experts involved in this project have included more research into the continued use of fossil fuels as the root cause of health problems.
“The diagnosis in this report is very clear,” Renee said. “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 systems and other social infrastructures on which health care depends have not adapted quickly enough to our current level of global warming.
“If we can’t handle the situation today, chances are we won’t be able to handle the situation in the future,” Romanello said.
The report is expected to be discussed at the annual United Nations climate summit in the United Arab Emirates, which begins in a few weeks. This year, the debate will include a greater emphasis on human health. /THE NEW YORK TIMES