This story includes details on the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.
A report from the world’s highest-impact medical journal warns that human health is “at the mercy of fossil fuels” because of the effects of climate change and the world’s reliance on oil, gas, and coal.
“Climate change is undermining every dimension of global health monitored,” say the authors of the 2022 Lancet Countdown, a report published annually as a consensus of 99 multidisciplinary experts from more than 50 institutions across the world.
Global heating is increasing the fragility of the systems that human health depends on, and compounding our vulnerability to geopolitical, energy, and cost-of-living crises, they add.
“While the analysis found an increase in heat deaths, hunger, and infectious disease as the climate crisis intensifies, governments continue to give more in subsidies to fossil fuels than to the poorer countries experiencing the impacts of global heating,” reports the Guardian.
“We’re seeing a persistent addiction to fossil fuels that is not only amplifying the health impacts of climate change, but which is also now at this point compounding with other concurrent crises that we’re globally facing, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, energy crisis, and food crisis that were triggered after the war in Ukraine,” said Lancet Countdown Executive Director Marina Romanello, a health and climate researcher at University College London.
With exposure to extreme heat one of the 43 health and climate indicators the report tracks, the researchers found that heat-related deaths in the most vulnerable populations—babies under a year old and adults over 65—increased 68% over the past four years compared with 2000-2004. Extreme heat can worsen cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cause heat stroke, and also affect mental health. Meanwhile, supply chain disruptions and the pandemic stressed the health care system to a breaking point.
“Urgent action is therefore needed to strengthen health system resilience and to prevent a rapidly escalating loss of lives and to prevent suffering in a changing climate,” says the report.
Hunger is also on the rise, with extreme heat causing crop losses and limiting food access by slashing vulnerable populations’ incomes as soaring temperatures shorten labour hours. These factors led to 98 million more cases of self-reported hunger in 2020 compared to 1981-2010, the report finds.
“The climate crisis is killing us,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres, in response to the findings. “It is undermining not just the health of our planet, but the health of people everywhere—through toxic air pollution, diminishing food security, higher risks of infectious disease outbreaks, record extreme heat, drought, floods, and more.”
The report states that at this “critical juncture,” concurrent crises like pandemics and wars threaten to undermine emissions reduction policies. But countries continue to favour burning fossils as a short-term solution to fuel shortages, and action to address global warming has not kept pace with national climate commitments, the Lancet notes. Fossil companies continue to receive subsidies and reap record profits even though their activities “are far from compliant with the goals of the Paris agreement.” The Lancet says 80% of the 86 governments it assessed subsidized fossil fuels, collectively doling out US$400 billion in 2019.
The authors recommend that countries aim for a “health-centred response” to the current crises, to bring about a low-carbon resilient future while delivering improved health and well-being as concurrent benefits of climate action. The report notes that 86% of updated or new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris deal now make references to health—a 4% increase from the first round of commitments.
“Our global commitment to cut fossil fuels is way off-track, and now fossil fuel-focused responses to the energy crises we face could reverse the progress made so far,” said Lancet Countdown co-chair Prof. Anthony Costello. “We must change, otherwise our children face a future of accelerated climate change, threatening their very survival.”