Climate Change Causing Premature Deaths, Sickness Despite Lockdowns, Says Study

Lockdown measures taken amid the COVID-19 crisis have done almost nothing to reduce CO2 emissions.
Brad Bergan

The effects of climate change are making people sick and causing premature death, according to a recent report in The Lancet — which draws grim links between global warming and public health.


Climate change causing illness, causing early human deaths

The study was published on Wednesday, and emphasizes public health data from 2019, showing how heat waves, extreme weather, and air pollution cause increasingly more damage to human health. As the most comprehensive report on the unhappy nexus of climate and health, climate policymakers cite it with regular frequency.

The list of study authors includes dozens of public health experts and physicians from around the world. Both reports draw explicit links between burning fossil fuels, and death and disease.

"Many carbon-intensive practices and policies lead to poor air quality, poor food quality, and poor housing quality, which disproportionately harm the health of disadvantaged populations," wrote the authors of The Lancet analysis.

'Humanity is waging a war on nature'

An emergency room physician named Renee Salas of Massachusetts General Hospital and one of the lead study authors of the section about the U.S. said governments interested in supporting public health need to cease their financial support of the fossil fuel industry.

"We have to stop investing in something that is a thing of the past, and is actually subsidizing health harms," she said, NPR reports. "Climate change and air pollution have the same root cause — the burning of fossil fuels."

During a Wednesday speech on climate change, Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres told world leaders it was time to reduce their dependence on fossil fuel production. "Humanity is waging a war on nature. This is suicidal," he said. "Every country, city, financial institution and company should adopt plans for transitioning to net zero [greenhouse gas] emissions by 2050."

Patrick Robert Doyle
Previous sentiments tying COVID-19 lockdowns to reduced carbon dioxide pollution have proven unrealistic. Source: Patrick Robert Doyle / Unsplash

Elderly deaths from extreme heat increased 50 percent in 20 years

Contrary to preliminary estimations of reduced damage to the global ecosystem from lockdown procedures amid the coronavirus crisis, these measures did virtually nothing to lower the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

At greatest risk from the effects of global warming are the elderly. In the last 20 years, the number of people more than 65 years old dying from extreme heat has increased 50%, according to The Lancet report. Additionally, at least 296,000 people died from heat exposure in 2018, the newest set of global data available.

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Cristina Gottardi
Heat-related deaths for people older than 65 have nearly doubled in 20 years. Source: Cristina Gottardi / Unsplash

Outside laborers, student-athletes, the poor at greater risk

Heatwaves are deadlier in the northern hemisphere than elsewhere, according to the study authors. In the U.S., heat-related deaths in elderly people older than 65 years doubled in the last 20 years. Almost 20,000 people in the U.S. died from causes linked to heatwaves in 2019.

Earlier research shows those who work outside, in addition to student-athletes and poor people all experience a greater likelihood of suffering from heat-linked illnesses.

Pandemic unveiled 'cascading,' 'far-reaching failures' in US health system

The recent report also shows how climate change threatens public health infrastructure — like primary care facilities, hospitals, and emergency services. Two-thirds of the more than 800 cities the researchers surveyed expect the effects of climate change to "seriously compromise public health infrastructure," according to the report.

Salas, a researcher at Mass General on the intersection of health, climate change, and health care, said the 2020 pandemic illuminates how unprepared the public health apparatus is to confront major disasters.

To Salas, the "cascading and far-reaching failures" of the U.S. health system this year should be a wake-up call for the incoming Biden-Harris administration — especially concerning poor people and minorities most vulnerable to the effects of pollution and lack of access to adequate health care.

Petter Rudwall
'We don't have to live this way,' said Benjamin. Source: Petter Rudwall / Unsplash

Pollution is preventable, pandemic's impetus to change

Air pollution from vehicles, agriculture, and power plants collectively contribute to asthma (and other illnesses), which makes severe COVID-19 cases more probable.

"These are two tremendous disasters that are co-occurring in our nation as we speak," said Executive Director Georges Benjamin of the American Public Health Association.

He also emphasized how the global economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis presents us with an opportunity to adapt to the onslaught of climate change. "Climate change is an excellent example of severe inequity," he said.

"It's preventable," said Benjamin. "We don't have to live this way."

Until widespread measures go into effect, there are a few high-risk areas we can take steps to improve. For example, urban areas lacking green space have become increasingly hostile islands of heat — since they trap hot air and pollution. Planting trees, investing in new housing and reducing industrial and highway pollution can help to address the issues with which climate change presents us.

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