Droughts will hurt food production, rising temperatures will encourage the spread of dangerous pathogens such as malaria and cholera and current climate trends indicate a “code red” for future health, the new report in The Lancet medical journal predicts.
The Lancet Countdown report, published annually, tracks 44 metrics of the health impacts of climate change, including the impact of climate change on infectious disease transmission and food production, as researched by experts affiliated with more than 40 UN groups and educational institutions.
The report said during a 6 month period in 2020, 51.6 million people were impacted by 84 disasters from floods, droughts, and storms in countries already struggling with the coronavirus pandemic.
“The 2021 report of the Lancet Countdown finds a world overwhelmed by an ongoing global health crisis, which has made little progress to protect its population from the simultaneously aggravated health impacts of climate change,” the report authors wrote.
Climate impacts on health identified in the report included increased droughts hurting food production, more violent natural disasters placing burdens on health care systems, and rising temperatures encouraging the spread of infectious pathogens.
The report said climate change contributed to a record-breaking heatwave in the US Pacific Northwest that caused more than 1,000 deaths.
“Looking to 2021, people older than 65 years or younger than 1 year, along with people facing social disadvantages, were the most affected by the record-breaking temperatures of over 40°C in the Pacific Northwest areas of the USA and Canada in June, 2021— an event that would have been almost impossible without human-caused climate change,” the authors wrote.
Dr. Jeremy Hess, a global health and emergency medicine professor at the University of Washington and a co-author on the report, said in a media briefing that he has seen some of these health effects firsthand.
“I was taking care of patients in two of our hospitals out here in Seattle during the heat dome and unfortunately this was the first year I can say confidently that I and my patients very clearly experienced the impacts of climate change. I saw paramedics who had burns on their knees from kneeling down to care for patients with heatstroke. And I saw far too many patients die in the ED as a result of their heat exposure this past year,” Hess said.
Climate change contributing to the spread of disease
According to the report, rising temperatures have resulted in an increase in the number of months where malaria is transmissible since the 1950s, and an increase in the number of areas suitable for cholera transmission. The “epidemic potential” of viruses including dengue and Zika increased globally.
“Together with global mobility and urbanization, climate change is a major driver of the increase in the number of dengue virus infections, which have doubled every decade since 1990,” the report’s authors write.
“Other important emerging or re-emerging arboviruses, transmitted by mosquitoes, are likely to have a similar response to climate change.”
How a ‘green recovery’ from Covid-19 can help
Hess said global recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic could worsen an already dire situation, particularly if it is not a “green recovery.”
“The world has invested tremendous resources in recovery, but not taken the opportunity to invest those resources in a green recovery that isn’t fueled by fossil fuels. And this unfortunately is a lost opportunity for us. We could be investing in a healthier future, and as of right now, and of course this is a pivotal moment in politics in the United States and globally, related to climate change, we need to seize that opportunity,” Hess said.
Released ahead of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 26th Conference of the Parties, the report highlights the importance of global climate action, like the Paris Agreement, on global health.
“Neither Covid-19 nor climate change respect national borders. Without widespread, accessible vaccination across all countries and societies, Sars-CoV-2 and its new variants will continue to put the health of everybody at risk. Likewise, tackling climate change requires all countries to deliver an urgent and coordinated response, with Covid-19 recovery funds allocated to support and ensure a just transition to a low-carbon future and climate change adaptation across the globe,” report authors said.
“By directing the trillions of dollars that will be committed to Covid-19 recovery towards the WHO’s prescriptions for a healthy, green recovery, the world could meet the Paris Agreement goals, protect the natural systems that support well-being, and minimize inequities through reduced health effects and maximized co-benefits of a universal low-carbon transition.”
“Every fraction of a degree matters for health inequity and the US has an opportunity to make the urgent sweeping actions that we need to protect health,” Dr. Renee Salas, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School who contributed to the report, told CNN.
“Climate change is first and foremost a health crisis that is unfolding right now and as an emergency medicine doctor I took an oath to protect the health of my patients, and I can’t do that without action (on) climate change. So, improving health and accelerating equity, must not only be the reason we act, but it also has to guide how we respond”
‘We’re about to do the same mistake again’
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, who did not contribute to the report, told the briefing the pandemic offers a way to better prepare for climate change as a health crisis on a global scale.
“We’ve just spent many years preparing and talking about a pandemic, and quite frankly, we were not prepared. We did not put the infrastructure in place that we actually needed to put in place. We de-invested in … our health and public health systems in ways that quite tragically resulted in two years of significant outbreak that did not have to be as bad as it was,” he said.
“The real issue here is that we’re about to do the same mistake again. We’re about to have the same things happen to us because we have not really invested in the mitigation and adaptation that is necessary to address climate change.”
In an editorial released with the report referenced research on what has made societies resilient against climate issues in the past.
“These pathways are: exploiting new opportunities, developing resilient energy systems, utilizing trade and resources, forging political and institutional adaptations, and migration and transformation,” the editorial authors wrote.
“The key message is that the world needs a new era of research that is less focused on forecasts for climate change, and more on predictions of the societal consequences of future warming and how to weather them. Succumbing to the climate emergency is not inevitable.”
CNN’s Jen Christensen contributed to this story.