Rising temperatures and environmental pollutants are already endangering the health and well-being of Americans, with fatal consequences for thousands of older men and women, a team of public health experts warned on Wednesday. Their report, published in The Lancet, called on lawmakers to stem the rise of gases that warm the planet over the next five years.
The section on the United States presents climate change as a risk to public health now, rather than a danger to future generations. It highlights the immediate dangers of extreme heat, forest fires and air pollution, and advocates for a rapid shift to a green economy as a way to improve public health.
The coronavirus pandemic, the authors point out, has served as a reminder of the urgent need to strengthen the nation’s public health system – which will be all the more necessary for Americans to deal with the health effects of climate change, which, the the authors conclude that disproportionately harm those with the fewest resources to respond to threats.
“The overriding theme that I stress to the incoming administration is to make health central,” said Dr. Renee N. Salas, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the US policy document contained in The Lancet report, in an appeal with reporters. “Climate action is a prescription for health.”
The report contains a set of general recommendations aimed directly at the new presidential administration. To improve the health of Americans, the authors recommend ending fossil fuel subsidies, investing in public transit, and reducing the use of nitrogen fertilizers on U.S. farms, which are both a source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet.
“We need to stop investing in what is a thing of the past and is harmful to health,” said Dr Salas.
The report summarizes research on how rising temperatures – and in particular more frequent and intense heat waves – are already damaging human health around the world. Over the past 20 years, according to the report, extreme heat has been linked to a 50% increase in deaths of people over the age of 65, with 296,000 deaths in 2018. Most of those deaths occurred in Japan, China, India and parts of Europe.
The extreme heat also makes it difficult to work, especially outdoors. According to the report, 302 billion hours of potential labor productivity were lost in 2019 alone. Workers in hot and humid countries like India and Indonesia have been hit the hardest.
Over the past 20 years, the risk of forest fires has also been higher. The fires have grown bigger and more severe in landscapes like the western United States, destroying four million acres in California alone this year so far. The number of days with forest fire smoke in the air has also increased significantly.
The Lancet Climate Change and Health Countdown, as it’s officially called, is published annually by the medical journal. Wednesday’s edition was the fifth annual report and was written by experts from more than 35 research institutes around the world.
The report found that climates conducive to infectious diseases had expanded, with areas ripe for dengue-spreading mosquitoes increasing by 15 percent since the 1950s. It also highlighted worrying signs about food security . Between 1981 and 2019, according to the report, the “yield potential” of several staple crops plummeted, meaning crops are ripening faster and production is below average. The biggest drops are in maize, a staple food in parts of Africa and Latin America. The world still produces enough food, even if it does not always go to the people who need it most.
The Lancet Countdown calls on national governments to dramatically reduce emissions over the next five years. Without them, say its authors, it will be increasingly difficult to avoid the worst effects of global warming. “The next five years will be crucial,” the authors wrote.
The United Nations on Wednesday released a separate report concluding that governments must cut fossil fuel production by 6% per year over the next 10 years to limit catastrophic warming.