The threat of climate change is no longer some far-off notion that only affects future generations. It’s an urgent public health crisis that’s putting your patients at risk as you’re reading this article.
Health officials from some of the world’s most respected medical institutions sent out a sweeping report on the health effects of climate change this week. Published in The Lancet, the report highlights how the changing climate continues to kill thousands of Americans every year.
The Lancet Countdown
The Lancet is one of the industry’s leading scientific magazines. It’s also one of the oldest and most respected medical journals in the field. The publication started doing what it calls The Lancet Countdown several years ago to track and monitor the ongoing effects of climate change.
This 2020 report represents the findings and consensus of the 35 leading academic institutions and UN agencies that make up The Lancet Countdown. It pulls from the expertise of the world’s leading climate scientists, geographers, engineers, public health experts, and political scientists, as well as those who specialize in energy, food, transportation, and economics.
While the report covers global health, it also paints a dark picture of life in the U.S. as it tackles issues such as the dangers of pollution, wildfires, and extreme heat.
- Air Pollution
When It comes to the air we breathe, the report shows how air pollution from agriculture, vehicles and power plants contributes to asthma and other respiratory conditions, all of which increase the risk of complications from COVID-19.
- Extreme Heat
Rising temperatures and heat stress have also become major causes for concern over the last couple of decades. In the last 20 years, the report finds, extreme heat has been linked to a 50% increase in deaths of people older than 65, with 296,000 deaths in 2018. The U.S. has seen this number double during this time frame. Nearly 20,000 older people in the U.S. died in connection with heat waves last year alone.
Older people, low-income individuals, those who work outside, and student athletes are all more vulnerable to extreme heat than the general population.
Heat waves are also bad for productivity. The report estimates that 302 billion hours of potential labor productivity were lost in 2019 alone.
Furthermore, warmer temperatures increase the risk of infectious disease. The number of areas ripe for dengue-spreading mosquitoes has grown by 15% since the 1950s.
Wildfires and the resulting smoke can also be a severe threat to your patients. Fires have already burned more than four million acres across the U.S. this year. The number of days when there is wildfire smoke in the air have risen sharply, too.
What Can We Do to Fight It?
The report isn’t just all gloom and doom. Researchers include dozens of steps the U.S. and other nations can take to reverse these trends before they spiral out of control.
Doctors are calling for the U.S. and other developed nations to end the subsidization of fossil fuels that are harming the environment and public health. The authors would also like to see a massive investment in public transportation, which would spur economic growth, reduce inequality, and help people reduce their carbon footprint naturally by leaving their cars at home.
They also want American farmers to stop using nitrogen fertilizers, which can negatively affect air quality and increase planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
Dr. Renee Salas, an emergency room physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and one of the lead authors of the section about the United States, says our stubborn fascination with the fossil fuel industry is only making things worse.
“We have to stop investing in something that is a thing of the past, and is actually subsidizing health harms,” she said. “Climate change and air pollution have the same root cause — the burning of fossil fuels.”
The United Nations recently released its own report on the health effects of climate change, which presented similar findings. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gave a speech, calling for immediate action. “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Every country, city, financial institution and company should adopt plans for transitioning to net zero [greenhouse gas] emissions by 2050.”
The report also advocates for a robust investment in our country’s healthcare system, so providers and facilities will be more resilient in the face of climate change.
Authors point to the fact that the incoming Biden Administration will have to take the lead on these issues after the U.S. decided to leave the Paris Climate Agreement, first signed in 2016.
Dr. Renee N. Salas, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the United States policy paper contained in the report, said, “The overarching theme I stress to the incoming administration is making health central. Climate action is a prescription for health.”