Extreme heat killed 296,000 older adults world-wide in 2018, and heat-related deaths among seniors rose 58% in Canada and 50% internationally over a 20-year span, the 2020 edition of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change reported earlier this week.
“The report summarizes the research on how rising temperatures—and more frequent, more intense heat waves in particular—are already damaging human health around the world,” the New York Times states, with the majority of the deaths centred in Japan, China, India, and parts of Europe.
“Extreme heat also makes it hard to work, especially outdoors,” the Times adds. “According to the report, 302 billion hours of potential labour productivity were lost in 2019 alone. Workers in hot, humid countries like India and Indonesia were most affected.”
The Countdown points to wildfires growing bigger and more severe, food yields for staple crops like maize declining, and more areas becoming more suitable for the spread of infectious disease, with habitats for the mosquitoes that spread dengue fever growing 15% since the 1950s, the Times says.
“Climate action is a prescription for health,” said Dr. Renée Salas, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the United States section of the report. “We have to stop investing in what is a thing of the past and health-harming” by ending fossil fuel subsidies, supporting public transit, and reducing reliance on nitrogen fertilizers.
The report says 2,700 Canadians over 65 died heat-related deaths in 2018, while the cost of heat-related mortality rose 3½-fold between 2000 and 2018, from 0.2 to 0.7% of GDP. “These costs are comparable to the average income of 263,400 Canadians, or roughly the population of Gatineau, QC, or Saskatoon, SK,” the Canadian Medical Association says in a release.
Annual daily exposure to wildfire smoke has increased 14% in the last four years, 8,400 people died prematurely due to fine particulate air pollution in 2018, and “low-income Canadians, ethnic minorities, Indigenous communities, and other groups at risk are unfairly burdened by the health impacts of air pollution,” the Canadian release states. “Fossil fuel-based transport continues to be the biggest source of air pollution.”
The CMA points to the COVID-19 pandemic as a measure of the health system’s ability to deal with future shocks brought on by the climate crisis. “As we consider the post-COVID era that lies ahead, this data reminds us that we have the capacity and opportunity to address some of the most deeply-embedded inequities that continue to impede societal and economic advancements that lead to better health,” said rural family medicine resident Dr. Finola Hackett of the University of Calgary (Lethbridge program). “We can’t ignore the impact of climate change any more.”