In a new report, researchers no longer present climate change as a hazard to future generations, but rather as an immediate public health risk that has already inflicted harm on vulnerable populations across the United States.
Heat-related mortality for older people in the US has almost doubled in the past two decades, reaching a record high of 19,000 deaths in 2018, according to the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change policy brief for the US.
“Climate action is a prescription for health,” Renee Salas, a lead author of the report and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said in a call with reporters.
Besides extreme heat, the public health experts also identified wildfires and air pollution as immediate dangers to Americans.
The report found that exposure to high wildfire risk for individuals in the US has increased by 19% since less than two decades ago. Wildfires not only threaten lives and property as they rage across dry landscapes and into nearby communities, but they also pose as a more silent killer through the air pollution they generate.
Like numerous reports that have come before it, this recent policy brief urges lawmakers to curb greenhouse gas emissions and shift toward a green economy in order to prevent public health from further deteriorating.
“We have to stop investing in what is a thing of the past and health-harming,” Salas said. “Climate change and air pollution have the same root cause — the burning of fossil fuels.”
But the report doesn’t stop there. Instead, it provides six specific recommendations that the US should implement for the sake of public health.
First, the country needs to commit to healthy, sustainable agricultural practices that can both help improve health and prevent climate change. In 2018, the agricultural sector contributed to more than 12,000 premature deaths in the US from tiny, health-harming air pollution particles, according to the report.
Other recommendations in the report include removing fossil fuel subsidies, shifting to zero-carbon electricity, increasing access to zero-carbon transport options, and strengthening the public health system in general.
Finally, public health experts also urge the US to invest in a healthy recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic that works toward a stable climate, strong public health system, sustainable economy, and equitable society.
“No one is immune to these health risks,” the authors wrote in the report. “While time is running out, there is still an opportunity for decisive action to lessen the severity of climate change impacts by prioritizing a healthy future for all.”
The policy brief on the US is part of the fifth Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change report, a routinely cited annual report on the intersection of climate and health authored by dozens of physicians and public health experts from around the world.
The full report provides a global view of how rising temperatures are damaging human health. It found that, in the last two decades, there has been a 50% increase in heat-related mortality among people older than 65. Among the nearly 300,000 heat-related deaths in 2018, most occurred in Japan, China, India, and parts of Europe.
Climate change has also made it harder and sometimes impossible for people to work outdoors, increased habitat for disease-spreading organisms to thrive, and cast a shadow on food security, especially in vulnerable areas.
All of these impacts, in the US and abroad, will contribute to exacerbating existing inequities and make it more difficult to end extreme poverty in the next decade.
“Climate change is an excellent example of severe inequity,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told NPR. “It's preventable. We don't have to live this way.”