Feeling the heat? Scientists warn of climate shocks to global health

Megan Rowling, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Posted at Dec 03 2020 11:01 AM

Smoke is seen coming out of a chimney at the Tata steel plant in Ijmuiden, Netherlands April 3, 2019. Picture taken April 3, 2019. Yves Herman, Reuters/file

BARCELONA - Heat-related deaths are surging around the world, particularly among older people, scientists said on Thursday, warning of growing pressure on health systems hit hard by COVID-19.

Almost 300,000 people over the age of 65 died from extreme heat in 2018 - a 54 percent rise in two decades, said a report on the links between health and climate in The Lancet medical journal.

Higher temperatures are also making it impossible for people to work outdoors in sweltering conditions, with 302 billion work hours lost in 2019, up from 199 billion in 2000, it said.

"Climate-induced shocks are claiming lives, damaging health and disrupting livelihoods in all parts of the world right now," said Ian Hamilton, executive director of the fifth annual report of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change.

No country is immune to the worsening effects of a warming world on people's health, whether linked to wildfires, heatwaves, floods, pollution or mosquito-borne diseases, said the study by 35 academic institutions and UN agencies.

The new coronavirus pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the ability of health systems to cope with the sorts of health shocks climate change could cause in future, said Hugh Montgomery, Lancet Countdown co-chairman.

"A nation's wealth offers no protection against the health impacts of even a 1.2C global average temperature rise," he said, referring to the level of warming since preindustrial times.

"Flames, floods and famine do not respect national borders or bank accounts," said Montgomery, a professor of intensive care medicine at University College London who has been caring for COVID-19 patients.

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The growing health threats linked to climate change could overwhelm healthcare systems without more effort to prepare them for the pressures of a warming world, the report warned.

Only half of 101 countries surveyed had drawn up national health and climate plans, with just four saying they had adequate funding, it noted.

At the same time, two-thirds of 814 cities surveyed expect climate change to seriously compromise their public health infrastructure, the report said.

The rapid introduction of new online and telemedicine services in response to COVID-19 could help make the health care sector more resilient and reduce its planet-warming emissions, responsible for about 5 percent of the global total, it added.

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