Climate change sounds ‘code red’ for health

| Constance McBarron
Two kids bike and one kid walks through flood water with a yellow shuttered building in the background.

During a six-month period in 2020, 51.6 million people worldwide were impacted by 84 climate change–related disasters including floods, fires, droughts and storms, the new report shows. Photo: trilemedia via Pixabay.

Climate crisis gravely threatens human health, according to new Lancet Countdown report coauthored by DEOHS researchers

The evidence has been clear for some time: Climate change presents a dire threat to human health. Unfortunately, as a result of inaction on the issue, the prognosis is getting worse.

During a six-month period in 2020, 51.6 million people worldwide were impacted by 84 climate change–related disasters including floods, fires, droughts and storms.

This year, climate change contributed to a record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest that caused more than 1,000 deaths. The areas where climate-sensitive diseases such as dengue can flourish are growing, disproportionately affecting poorer nations and people who have contributed least to the problem.

These findings and more are part of the new 2021 Lancet Countdown report, subtitled “Code red for a healthy future,” which was coauthored by Dr. Jeremy Hess and Kristie Ebi, professors in the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS).

Portrait of Jeremy Hess.
Dr. Jeremy Hess, DEOHS professor and director of CHanGE.

Hess, director of the UW Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHanGE) is also the senior author of an accompanying US policy brief highlighting trends in these indicators relevant to the United States.

The annual report, published in The Lancet, is an international collaboration of leading researchers from 43 academic institutions and United Nations agencies tracking climate change and its intersection with 44 global health indicators.

Rising temperatures have consequences

In a live launch event for the report, Hess shared his experience working in the emergency room at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center during last summer’s heat wave.

“Unfortunately, this was the first year I can say confidently that I and my patients very clearly experienced the impacts of climate change,” Hess said. “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 [emergency department] as a result of their heat exposure this past year."

Fewer than half of homes in Seattle had air conditioning during this year’s heat dome, according to the brief. Furthermore, inequitable access to weatherized, energy-efficient homes limits adaptability for low-income communities and people of color, putting them at greater risk.

Policy recommendations prioritize health and equity

Portrait of Kristie Ebi.
DEOHS Professor Kristie Ebi.

The brief outlines policy recommendations in three areas:

• Invest in adaptation to reduce health impacts, such as providing vouchers for air conditioning and energy to run it, eliminating electricity surge pricing, subsidizing home weatherization, and implementing heat early-warning systems and action plans;

• Incorporate health costs and benefits into economic and financial analyses related to climate change, such as factoring in health-related costs of fossil-fuel use into fiscal analyses and decision making regarding fossil-fuel subsidies;

• Invest aggressively in mitigation, or efforts to reduce emissions to slow climate change—for example, transitioning away from high-polluting fossil-fuel infrastructure in and near low-income communities and investing in clean-energy alternatives.

“The world has invested tremendous resources in recovery from COVID and its economic impacts,” Hess said, “but not taken the opportunity to invest those resources in a green recovery, instead putting resources into one driven by fossil fuels.”

Hess said this may be a lost opportunity.

“We could be investing in a healthier future...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.”


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