Skip to main content

Climate change is already a disaster to health, doctors say

Climate change is already a disaster to health, doctors say


‘We see really catastrophic impacts that are very distressing to us’

Share this story

This picture, taken on June 25th, 2019, in Clermont-Ferrand, shows a personal care assistant holding the hand of an elderly person as she visits her house to help her to avoid heatstroke and dehydration during a heatwave.
Photo by Thierry Zoccolan / AFP via Getty Images

Dangerously high temperatures put hundreds of thousands of people’s health and livelihoods at risk every year, and a major new report shows how much the threat has already grown in a warming world. Among other alarming statistics, heat-related deaths among older adults grew by nearly 54 percent between 2000 and 2018, the report finds. 

The sweeping health and climate change report was published today in the prominent medical journal The Lancet. The report was produced by more than 100 experts from academia, the World Health Organization, and other UN agencies. The report offers proof that climate change will not only reshape life in the future, but it is actively endangering lives now. Health care providers already see themselves treating a climate crisis.

“We don’t want our health system to be overwhelmed.”

Doctors held back tears during a briefing with reporters when asked to reflect on the results of the report and how it connected to their experiences in emergency rooms as the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world. “It’s been a really, really hard year,” said Jeremy Hess, an emergency medicine physician and co-author of the study, before taking a long pause to collect himself. “We see really catastrophic impacts that are very distressing to us.” Heatwaves and other natural disasters were particularly dangerous this year, as emergency responders and health care systems struggled to handle the pandemic. Experts fear that climate-related disasters could similarly overwhelm hospitals in the future. 

“We really implore people to learn with us from our experience this year, and try and avoid the worst,” Hess said. “We don’t want our health system to be overwhelmed by climate change impacts, and we know what we need to do to stop this.”

The report, while covering a sweeping range of health threats from hunger to pollution, included brand-new findings on how many more lives have been taken by extreme heat. The number of heat-related deaths globally in 2018 reached an alarming 296,000 — and that’s just among people over the age of 65, who are among the most vulnerable to heat illness. China, India, Japan, and central Europe had the most deaths among older adults. In the US, heat-related mortality has nearly doubled for this demographic over the past 20 years, reaching a record 19,000 deaths in 2018. 

Heat-related mortality has nearly doubled for this demographic

People who work outside are also more vulnerable to heatwaves. Staying inside during a heatwave is often a healthier choice. But not working when it’s too hot outside comes with costs, too. US workers in the service, manufacturing, agriculture, and construction sectors likely lost $45 billion in earnings in 2015, the report estimates. Globally, people worked 302 billion hours less in 2019 because of scorching temperatures — 103 billion more hours than were lost in 2000. 

Rising temperatures have also triggered more wildfires, which poses another set of health threats. Globally, the risk of people being exposed to a wildfire grew in a majority of the world’s countries in recent years when compared to the period between 2001 and 2004. The US saw one of the biggest increases in risk, with a 19 percent rise in daily exposures to wildfires. That means more people are breathing in more soot and pollution from the blazes. 

Fortunately, other studies have shown how taking ambitious action on climate change can save thousands of lives. “We don’t want to have regret that we didn’t do everything we could in order to prevent what we know is coming,” says Renee Salas, an emergency medicine doctor and lead author of a policy brief accompanying today’s new report. “That’s why we’re pleading [with people] to listen to the science. Let the science guide us, and prevent the most catastrophic outcomes that could lie ahead if we don’t do something.”