Climate change is already damaging people’s health in a number of ways from deadly heatwaves across the globe to increasing instances of dengue fever in the tropics.
The 2018 report of the Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change, produced by 150 experts from 27 universities and institutions including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank, also shows climate change can negatively affect nutrition, mental health, and people’s capacity to work outdoors.
During the press conference marking the report’s launch, authors highlighted that the combination of rising temperatures, leading to higher A&E and hospital admissions due to heat-related illness, and extreme weather event, which can damage infrastructure, could overwhelm health services.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said about the report “The findings are clear and the stakes could not be higher, we cannot delay action on climate change. We cannot sleepwalk through this health emergency any longer.”
Nick Watt, the executive director of the Lancet Countdown, added “These are not things happening in 2050 but are things we are already seeing today. We think of these as the canary in, ironically, the coalmine.”
According to the report, 153 billion hours of work were lost in 2017 due to extreme heat. 80% of it in agriculture and almost half of the losses happened in India, which is equal to roughly 7% of its whole working population. Compared to the year 2000, 157 million more vulnerable people were exposed to heatwaves in 2017 and 18 million more than in 2016.
The temperature increase is not just dangerous because the heat itself affects human health directly, it also exacerbates urban air pollution. With 97% of cities in low- and middle- income countries not meeting WHO air quality guidelines, this adds even more pressure to health systems.
Prof. Kris Ebi, Professor of global health and of environmental and occupational health science, University of Washington, said “Increased mortality in extreme heatwaves is not something that may happen, it’s happening now and will continue as global temperatures continue to rise. There is abundant evidence that communities are not prepared for the ongoing increases in the frequency, intensity, and duration of heatwaves. Actions are needed right now, matched with investments, such as implementing early warning systems for heatwaves, including mapping vulnerable populations and providing interventions designed to increase resilience during hot weather.”
Of the 478 global cities surveyed in the report, 51% were expecting climate change to seriously compromise their public health infrastructure. 65% said they have either already completed or are currently doing climate change risk assessments but spending on climate adaptation for health is estimated to be just 4·8% (£11·68 billion) of all adaptation spending which is woefully inadequate, the report warns.
High temperatures do more than raise tempers and stoke conflicts. They are also linked to depression, mental instability and a higher suicide risk.
A new study suggests that hot weather’s adverse effects on some people can include a heightened suicide risk. While the rise is numerically small today, the increase in extreme heat expected later this century could have starker consequences.
They found that a 1°C rise above average temperatures could be linked to a tiny increase – just 0.68% – in suicides in the US and by 2.1% south of the border. The rise is small. But it means that if the pattern of heat extremes predicted under all global warming scenarios continues to 2050, then there could be an additional 21,000 acts of suicide.
The same study, in Nature Climate Change, also identified a tendency to respond depressively: in such hot spells, people who used the social media platform Twitter were more likely to employ telltale words such as “lonely” or “trapped” or “suicidal”.
“Suicide is one of the leading causes of death globally, and suicide rates in the US have risen dramatically over the last 15 years”
The Californian scientists looked at official death records county by county in the US from 1968 to 2004, and across municipalities in Mexico from 1990 to 2010. They then matched these with temperature records by day and by month for those locations.
They also checked 600 million Twitter updates that could be identified as coming from a particular place and combed them for evidence of what they call “depressive feelings.” And they found a link between temperature and low spirits, as well as between temperature and suicide rates.
If extended to temperatures likely by 2050, suicide rates could increase in the US by 1.4% and in Mexico by 2.3%. And that could add up to an extra 9,000 deaths at the very least, or as many as 44,000.
“Suicide is one of the leading causes of death globally, and suicide rates in the US have risen dramatically over the last 15 years. So better understanding of the causes of suicide is a public health priority.”
“We’ve been studying the effects of warming on conflict and violence for years, finding that people fight more when it’s hot,” said Dr Hsiang. “Now we see that, in addition to hurting others, some individuals hurt themselves. It appears that heat profoundly affects the human mind and how we decide to inflict harm.”
And Dr Burke said: “Hotter temperatures are clearly not the only, nor the most important, risk factor for suicide. But our findings suggest that warming can have a surprisingly large impact on suicide risk, and this matters for both our understanding of mental health as well as for what we should expect as temperatures continue to warm.”
The NHS England reported that during the July 2018 heatwave a total of 2.176 million people visited a hospital A&E unit, walk-in centre, or urgent treatment centre putting emergency departments under lots of pressure to cope with the influx of patients.
The latest NHS monthly performance figures show that July 2018 was exceptionally busy with 27.1% more patients admitted than in July 2017. It is believed that the heatwave led to an increase in admissions, mostly people with breathing conditions, like asthma, or people who had become dehydrated due to the heat.
The heatwave, however, is not solely to blame. Doctors spoke out to say that while the record temperatures were a key factor in the surge of attendances, missed waiting time targets showed the NHS is understaffed and underfunded. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said the figures showed the health service was “running at boiling point all year round.”
Speaking to The Guardian, Dr Taj Hassan, the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, which represents A&E doctors, said “The recent heatwave will have had an impact, but this should not be used to excuse inappropriate resourcing. It should also not come as a surprise that whatever the weather conditions, working in a continually under-resourced and declining system has consequences – all of which are detrimental to our patients.”
He also pointed out that wards and waiting rooms had gotten unbearably hot during the heatwave making longer waiting times hard to cope with and adding to the pressure on staff to deliver safe and effective care.
NHS England made a statement saying that “thanks to hard work of staff 9 in 10 people were seen, treated and admitted or discharged within four hours.”
However, if this summer is a taste of what is to come, it is clear the UK health system will need take decisive measures to adapt to a changing climate. Excessive heat can be detrimental to human health and as temperatures start to rise, so will the number of people who require medical care.
The NHS will have to provide enough resources and staffing in order to cope with the increased demand, especially in summer. Additionally, NHS facilities will need upgrading so that people who come in with heat-related illnesses don’t have to wait in unbearable heat to be seen.
A recently released report by Sustainable Energy for Allfinds that 1.1 billion people around the world face immediate risks from insufficient access to cooling. According to the report, access to cooling is an important emerging opportunity in climate adaptation innovation.
Rachel Kyte, CEO and Special Representative to the United Nations Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All, said “In a world facing continuously rising temperatures, access to cooling is not a luxury – it’s essential for everyday life. It guarantees safe cold supply chains for fresh produce, safe storage of life-saving vaccines, and safe work and housing conditions.”
The study shows that access to cooling is very much tied to wealth. Of the 1.1 billion people at immediate risk, 470 million are in poor rural areas and 630 are in hotter, poor urban slums. These people are also concentrated in nine countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America: India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, China, Mozambique and Sudan.
Cities, communities, and country leaders are asked to consider cooling action plans in order to close the access to cooling gap. Additionally, the Kyte points out that for companies that produce HFC-free, affordable air conditioning devices there is an enormous market opportunity out there.
In addition to the 1.1 billion rural and urban poor at immediate risk, the report identifies 2.3 billion people from the increasingly affluent lower-middle class, on the brink of being able to afford air conditioning, and 1.1 billion belonging to the established middle class, many of whom own air conditioning units but may able to upgrade them to more efficient ones.
This also ties into findings recently presented in a report completed by Acclimatise with UNEP FI and sixteen leading international banks. The report focuses on climate-related physical risks and opportunities to the banking sector. One of the examples named is an increased demand for loans for home improvements in order to cool houses where it was previously unnecessary.
While cooling is increasingly becoming a necessity, it is also a very energy-intensive measure. Increased cooling from HFCs and using fossil fuel powered energy can lead to more warming. In Mumbai alone, 40% of power use comes from air conditioning. Thus, phasing out HFCs, for instance through the Kigali Amendment, and the continued investment in renewable energy sources should remain priorities.
At the same time, urban development and real estate have the opportunity to radically rethink how buildings and cities can be designed in order to optimize cooling. In India, for example, 75% of the buildings required by 2030 have yet to be built, offering a massive opportunity to be innovative and provide cooler cities and housing.
Large parts of the Northern Hemisphere are currently experiencing unusually high temperatures giving us a taste of what climate change looks like in our day-to-day lives, and highlighting the need for adaptation.
Temperature records have been breaking across the United Kingdom, Glasgow for example had its hottest day ever recorded with 31.9C, and Scotland broke its temperature record with 33.2C in Motherwell. While these temperatures are not nearly as bad as elsewhere, they are out of the ordinary and are causing infrastructure problems.
Buckled rails and signal failures have led to widespread cancellations and delays. Additionally, the Met Office has activated a Level 3 – Heatwave Action across southern, central, and western England, encouraging people to check on any elderly family members or friends and other vulnerable persons.
In Canada, where Montreal broke its temperature record with 36.6C, up to 54 deaths have been linked to the heatwave in southern Quebec. Temperatures rose to 35C with high humidity and a smog advisory. Most victims were over 50 years old.
Most frightening of all, however, the temperature in the town of Quriyat in Oman never dropped below 42.6C for a full 24 hours in June.
In other news, global heatwave continues to smash records:
– Tbilisi: 41°C – Baku: 43°C – Yerevan: 42°C – Iran: 53°C – Montreal: 37°C – Ottawa: 47°C – Denver: 40°C – Los Angeles: 44°C (111°F) and all of Southern Ca – Scotland: 33.2°C
The warming trend is clear, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), all 18 years of the 21st century have been among the 19 warmest on record with 2016 being the hottest year ever recorded. The five hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2010.
Many countries have experienced what these trends can lead to. The notorious 2003 European heatwave is estimated to have caused anywhere between 20,000 and 70,000 premature deaths. In 2006, California saw a ten-day heatwave that was linked to 140 deaths. In Canada, the summer heatwave of 2010, one of the hottest on record, killed about 280 people.
A hot new normal without political will to change
The warming trends are clearly linked to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. While renewable energy use is growing, 80% of global energy use is from fossil fuels. The transition to a low-carbon economy is proving to be a slow one, thus, adaptation to climate change will be, and already is, essential.
National infrastructure, especially related to water supply, will need a lot of attention, as will housing standards. But, as we are seeing in the UK right now, transportation will need to be updated as well to deal with higher temperatures. There are also considerations for national healthcare and land management – adaptation truly needs to happen across all sectors.
However, as the political climate in the Northern Hemisphere heats up as well, climate change is rarely top of the agenda. This, of course, is a major mistake, as climate change will put even more pressure on any problems we are already facing undermining prosperity, progress, and economic growth.
Speeding up progress on reducing carbon emissions would save millions of lives, mostly in metropolitan areas of Africa and Asia.
To keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world would need to cut the majority of fossil-fuel related carbon emissions this century – and because this would also reduce air pollution locally, it would prevent 150 million premature deaths, according to a paper published in Nature Climate Change.
The researchers found that reducing this century’s expected carbon dioxide emissions by 180 gigatonnes – the amount needed to meet the 1.5 degree target, or keep global warming at 2 degrees without negative emissions– would mean moving to a largely renewables-sourced energy system.
Making this shift sooner rather than later would save an estimated 90 million lives by 2100 due to reduced exposure to fine particles, according to the study. Another 60 million deaths could be prevented because of reduced ozone levels.
“The public health benefits of very low carbon policies are enormous.”
“The public health benefits of very low carbon policies are enormous,” says Drew Shindell, a climate researcher at Duke University in North Carolina, United States, and co-author of the paper.
Last year saw the first increase in global CO2 emissions in four years, which puts added pressure on governments to live up to their emission reduction targets. While industrialised countries remain the biggest emitters by far, the researchers point out that developing countries avoid slipping down the fossil fuel pathway.
“Developing countries are largely in control of their own fate when it comes to air pollution,” says Shindell. “They’d have to make big changes to get off fossil fuels but they’d reap enormous benefits locally via air quality if they did so.”
Because their pollution levels are already high, Indonesia, China and Nigeria are likely to benefit the most from speeding up emissions reductions. Large urban centres, such as Cairo in Egypt, would also see significant improvements in death rates from pollution, the researchers found.
The first goalpost for global emission reduction targets, as set by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is 2030 – by which time many countries are meant to have significant renewable energy capacity in place.
But with financing falling short, the resulting emission reductions – and drop in deaths from pollution – could fail to happen, says Neill Bird, a senior research fellow at the UK-based Overseas Development Institute. “A lack of investment could result in countries sticking closer to a business as usual pathway,” he says.
Many developing countries find it difficult to finance renewable energy projects. A separate study warns that countries in the Global Green Growth Institute, a club of nations with voluntary renewable energy targets, need at least US$260 billion in additional investment if they are to meet their goals.
Published in Energy Policy, the study found that with the right investment, GGGI countries such as Uganda, Mexico, the Philippines and Senegal could draw up to 30 per cent of their energy needs from renewables by 2030. But the high upfront cost of installing renewables is an obstacle.
Dereje Senshaw, a Korea-based researcher for the GGGI and co-author of the study, says the best way to find the money is a combination of national and international funds. “Developing countries should not just expect international financial assistance,” he told SciDev.Net. “They should develop their own business models for renewable energy and create favorable market conditions in order to attract private investments.”
Bird says that middle-income countries should target foreign direct investment for their projects, but points out that the poorest nations will probably have to rely on international public funds, such as aid, to up their renewables capacity.
It is now widely accepted that climate change is one of the world’s leading health risks. From driving up the number of people exposed to heatwaves to increasing the risk of infectious diseases, such as dengue fever, climate change is already causing significant harm.
Similarly, the body of evidence that climate change is increasing the frequency and ferocity of weather-related extremes is increasing year-on-year. More people are being exposed – or, worse still, the same people are exposed more frequently – to injury, loss of homes and businesses, environmental damage and even loss of lives.
All of these have profound, often long-term effects on mental health. Yet there remains relatively little research on this topic, and even less commitment to doing anything about it.
This is a mistake. Good mental health is essential to our capacity to cope with and make the best of what life throws at us, including climate change. But it is not something we can take for granted.
Each year, hundreds of millions of people around the world experience mental illness. For most people, this is frightening, distressing, confusing and painful – potentially affecting every aspect of life. Work, relationships, finances, community participation and physical health are all touched.
Yet mental illness remains poorly understood, stigmatised and feared, too often experienced in shame and isolation. And the funding needs for mental health services and research are not being adequately addressed the world over.
That same neglect is reflected in the research around mental health and climate change. For example, as I show in a paper published in Nature Climate Change last week, a search on the online research database Scopus for studies concerning climate change and mental health yields just 208 publications between 2007 and 2018. And of these, only 29 critically evaluate mental health.
So, what does the available research tell us about the impacts of climate change on mental health?
Overall, the consensus in the scientific literature is that climate change will increase the number of people exposed to extreme events and, therefore, to subsequent psychological problems, such as worry, anxiety, depression, distress, loss, grief, trauma and even suicide.
The impacts of weather-related disasters can be more dramatic and this is where the biggest risks lie. They can create food shortages, destroy public infrastructure and disrupt transport, cut off power and connectivity, damage land used for agriculture and recreation, destroy sacred places and even force people to migrate. Vital medicines and medical aids can be lost fleeing extreme events, interrupting continuity of care.
Reconstruction and recovery from disasters is enormously costly. Pressures quickly escalate on frontline responders, such as emergency services, nurses and pharmacists, and other public health-related resources – including hospitals, care homes and the healthcare workforce.
These pressures create stress on society and the communities which have to absorb impacts and costs. Volunteers and paid service providers burn out, businesses and economic opportunities are damaged, incomes are reduced and productivity falls. Inequality – a key driver of poor health – can also begin to rise.
Pressures on time, money and stress can lead to people spending less time participating in their communities, being with and supporting each other. This can impair social cohesion and positive identities. For some, isolation can result or intensify. When this happens, we lose our most critical sources of mental wellbeing.
The scientific literature shows that severe mental health effects of disasters disproportionately hit vulnerable people – particularly women, young people, migrants, people living with a disability, and ethnic minorities.
Flooding in the UK offers another example. Research conducted by Public Health England (PHE) shows the floods in 2000 in Lewes, southern England, quadrupled community levels of psychological distress – and that those psychological problems were still identifiable four years after a flood.
PHE researchers have begun a programme of investigations to find out more about this and are looking at physical as well as mental impacts and “secondary stressors” – such as flood-related money pressures, problems with insurance claims and relationship stress.
The first year of the research has found elevated depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in flooded areas, even among those who were not personally flooded. Rates of problems were much higher in flooded households, especially when the flooding disrupted domestic utilities or healthcare, or forced residents out of their homes for a time.
In good news, being forewarned of flooding protected people against mental health impacts – an important lesson to take from the research so far.
The research undertaken so far has provided a solid base for understanding how climate change affects mental health. But connections still need to be analysed, theories tested and further evidence gathered.
The complexity of both mental health and climate change means that tackling the two together requires a “systems thinking” approach. This describes the big picture as well as the detail, taking in complex set of interacting factors – geopolitical, socio-economic, ecological and environmental – to best identify policy solutions.
Like all systems, the climate change-mental health system has power, resilience and momentum. As a result, there will be some aspects of mental health impacts – within a certain range of tolerance – that are unavoidable.
Working within an understanding the system will usefully influence policy thinking and the research needed to inform it. It is time to talk about climate change and mental health in our local, national and international communities, about harmful and adaptive pathways identifiable in the system – and about what we can do together to inhibit the former and promote the latter.
Fortuitously, people seem to worry about climate change collectively rather than personally, and this form of worry might be harnessed to motivate action on climate change and drive improvements in mental health. Both are greatly needed.
Climate scientists have repeatedly warned of the dangers of ever more intense and frequent heat extremes as the global average temperatures creep up, and two new studies have identified different ways in which cities themselves can become danger zones for vulnerable people.
All four studies are evidence of the subtle and often intricate connections between human civilisation and climate, and of the consequences of the simple question: what happens to communities and landscapes as average temperatures go up?
“Global warming is expected to cause extreme weather events, which may, in turn, result in large day-to-day fluctuations in temperature,” said Hedvig Andersson, a cardiology researcher at the University of Michigan.
“Our study suggests that such fluctuations in outdoor temperature could potentially lead to an increased number of heart attacks and affect global cardiac health in the future.”
She told the American College of Cardiology 67th annual scientific session that she and colleagues looked at data from 30,000 patients treated in 45 Michigan hospitals between 2010 and 2016, and then matched the patients with temperature fluctuations on the day of the attack.
Such a study cannot prove that temperature swings actually cause attacks, but there is what scientists call an association: rapid and extreme fluctuations seem to be accompanied by more cases of myocardial infarction, a serious form of heart attack.
The crowded urban spaces of America and Europe spread across landscapes warmer than at any time since the end of the Ice Age. US researchers report in the journal Nature that they collected fossil pollens from 642 ponds and lake beds across Europe and North America, to provide a record of local temperature shifts in the last 11,700 years, to conclude that – without global warming as a consequence of profligate human use of fossil fuels – the world ought to be in a cool phase.
“It does show that what has happened in the last 30 years — a warming trend — puts us outside of all but the most extreme single years every 500 years since the Ice Age. The last 10 years have, on average, been as warm as a normal one year in 500 warm spell,” said Bryan Shuman, an earth scientist at the University of Wyoming, and one of the authors.
Whatever the average regional temperature, it’s hotter in the cities, because concentrations of traffic, business, heating, cooking, lighting and air conditioning generate what has become known as the urban heat island effect: what makes this worse is that the asphalt, tarmacadam, stone, brick, glass and tile of which cities are made absorb radiation but prevent ground evaporation as a natural cooling device.
Researchers from Princeton University report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that they considered how future heat waves will play into the urban heat island effect in 50 US cities.
“Fluctuations in outdoor temperature could potentially lead to an increased number of heart attacks and affect global cardiac health in the future”
For the rest of this century, cities in the east and southeast of the US will be more severely affected: less so the cities in the arid parts of the American west.
But by 2100, this could change dramatically. Rainfall and heat extremes will increase. Cities such as Phoenix, Arizona will continue to face water shortages – once again, all that impermeable concrete and sealed highway – but climate change could make the surrounding countryside somewhat moister.
The message, once again, is that what keeps a city cool is moisture: the vapour evaporated from canals and rivers or transpired through green parks and treelined boulevards.
“Our study explains why cities suffer even more during extreme heat events and highlights the heat risks that urban residents face now and in the projected future.”
The researchers say the hunt should be on for heat mitigation strategies. But a surprising study in the journal Physical Review Letters suggests that some of the problems – and the solution – may have already been built into the fabric of the modern metropolis.
A team of materials scientists and engineers simply considered the city as crystalline or glass-like: that is, was the city laid out on a planned, orderly grid system? Or did it just grow up, in an organic, disorderly fashion?
They applied the tools of classical physics normally used to analyse atomic structures. They looked at satellite images of 47 cities in the US and beyond, and graded them according to their order, or disorder. Grid cities absorbed heat compared to their surroundings far faster than the so-called glass-like cities.
Since urban populations are growing, and new cities springing up everywhere, classical physics can help in unexpected ways. “If you’re planning a new section of Phoenix,” said Roland Pellenq of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “you don’t want to build on a grid, since it’s already a very hot place. But somewhere in Canada, a mayor may say no, we’ll choose to use the grid, to keep the city warmer.”
The effects are significant. He and colleagues found, for example, that in the state of Florida alone urban heat island effects cause an estimated $400 million in excess costs for air conditioning. “This gives a strategy for urban planners,” he says.
The health of millions of people across the world is already being significantly harmed by climate change, a major new report finds.
From driving up the number of people exposed to heatwaves to increasing the risk of infectious diseases, such as dengue fever, climate change has had far-reaching effects on many aspects of human health in last few decades, the authors say.
In fact, the effect of climate change on human health is now so severe that it should be considered “the major threat of the 21st century”, scientists said at a press briefing held in London.
The report is the first from the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, a project involving 24 academic institutions and intergovernmental organisations from across the world. The project plans to release a report tracking progress on climate change and global health every year.
Feeling the heat
The report uses a set of 40 indicators to track the effects of climate change on global health. The first of these indicators assesses the “direct impacts” of climate change on human health, including the effects of exposure to extreme heat and natural disasters.
One of the report’s findings is that, from 2000 to 2016, the rise in the average temperatures that humans were exposed to was around three times higher than the rise of average global temperatures worldwide.
This is shown on the graph below, where the rise in the global average surface temperature from 2000 to 2016, when compared to the average from 1986 to 2008 (red), is shown alongside the rise in the temperatures that humans are typically exposed to (blue).
The average temperatures that humans are exposed to are significantly higher than the global surface average because most people live on land, where warming happens most quickly, explains Prof Peter Cox, an author of the new report and a climate scientist at the University of Exeter: “Generally speaking, when you look at where people are, the rate of change appears much larger than when we look at global averages. So maybe when we think about global targets, we should be always bearing in mind that the global mean temperature doesn’t really mean much to most people. We don’t live on the ocean, which is two-thirds of the global mean. We live on the land, and on the land that tends to warm fastest.”
The report also finds the number of “vulnerable” people exposed to “heatwave” events increased by around 125 million between 2000 and 2016. “Vulnerable” is here defined as being over the age of 65, while a “heatwave” is defined as three consecutive nights where temperatures are in the top 1% of the 1986-2006 average for the region.
In 2015, a record 175 million more people were exposed to heatwaves, when compared to the average for 1986-2008, the report finds. You can see this in the chart below, which shows the change in the number of people exposed to heatwaves from 2000 to 2016, relative to 1986-2008.
These spikes in exposure are a result of an increase in heatwave events, as well as other environmental and social factors, including population growth, Cox says.
Heatwave exposure has previously been linked to an increased risk of premature death in many parts of the world, he explains:
“During the 2003 European heatwave, there were 75,000 extra premature deaths in Europe, including 2,000 in the UK. That was mainly because of people not being able to recover, and I guess breathing gets harder when it’s hot too. There is a correlation between these periods of hot nights and mortality. I suspect there must be a correlation with ill health as well.”
The report finds that the number of weather-related disasters from 2007 to 2016 increased by 46%, when compared with the average for 1990-1999.
Asia is the continent most affected by weather-related disasters, the report says – particularly because of its size and population. Between 1990 and 2016, 2,843 weather-related disasters were recorded in Asia, affecting 4.8 billion people and causing more than 500,000 deaths.
Despite a rise in the number of natural disasters, there has been no discernable rise in the global number of deaths or in the number of people affected by natural disasters, when compared to data from 1990 to 1999, the report finds.
This could indicate that countries are beginning to invest in adaptation strategies to cope with natural disasters, Cox says. However, the mismatch could also reflect a lack of data on deaths from climate-related disasters in the developing world, he adds:
“If you look at what happens when a disaster strikes, if it’s in the rich developed world, it leads to economic damages but we don’t lose people. If it’s in the developing world, then we lose lives.
“It is true that there is a kind of contradiction in that exposure is going up, but actually the number of people affected, at least recorded as affected, is staying flat, which either means we’re building greater resilience [to climate change], which I suspect is not true, or that the data we’re collecting on the amount of money being lost is better than on the amount of people being lost.”
Losses to the global workforce
Another set of indicators explored by the report look at the “human-mediated” impacts of climate change. These are impacts that are intrinsically linked to human society, but often exacerbated by climate change.
The first of these indicators explores how climate change has affected the productivity of the global workforce, particularly in the less economically-developed parts of the world. The report finds that the global productivity in rural labour capacity – defined as those who work in outdoor manual labour in rural areas, but excluding agricultural workers – has fallen by 5.3% from 2000 to 2016.
The chart below shows how this global loss in productivity is spread across the world, with red indicating a percentage loss in productivity and blue showing a percentage gain in labour capacity.
In 2016, this drop in productivity effectively took more than 920,000 people globally out of the workforce, the report finds, with 418,000 of these workers being “lost” from India.
One way that higher temperatures threaten labour capacity is by making manual work more physically challenging, the report finds:
“Higher temperatures pose profound threats to occupational health and labour productivity, particularly for people undertaking manual, outdoor labour in hot areas. Loss of labour capacity has important implications for the livelihoods of individuals, families, and communities, especially those relying on subsistence farming.”
An additional “human-mediated” impact of climate change is undernutrition, the report finds. It reports that the number of undernourished people in the top 30 undernourished countries of the world has increased from 398 million in 1990 to 422 million in 2016.
This is at least in part driven by the effect of climate change of yields of staple crops such as wheat, rice and maize, the report says. Climate change affects crop yields through increasing local temperatures, changes to rainfall patterns and more cases of drought. The report says:
“Increasing temperatures have been shown to reduce global wheat production by 6% for each 1C increase. Rice yields are sensitive to increases in night temperatures, with each 1C increase in growing-season minimum temperature in the dry season resulting in a 10% decrease in rice grain yield. Higher temperatures have been demonstrated rigorously to have a negative impact on crop yields in countries in lower latitudes. Moreover, agriculture in lower latitudes tends to be more marginal, and more people are food insecure.”
The report also investigates the “environment-mediated” impacts of climate change. These are impacts on human health that are caused by environmental factors but can be worsened by climate change.
One such impact is the spread of infectious diseases around the globe. Rising temperatures can increase the spread of infectious diseases by allowing pests to conquer new parts of the world, as well as by creating ideal conditions for reproduction and virus replication.
Climate change has affected the prevalence of many infectious diseases, the report notes. However, as an example, the report focuses on how climate change has impacted the spread of dengue fever, a disease spread by mosquitoes native to much of southeast Asia, central and south America, and Africa.
The research shows that the rate of the spread of dengue fever has increased from between 3% and 5.9% globally, when compared to levels from 1990.
The chart below shows how the rate of the spread of dengue fever (vectorial capacity) has increased in the world’s most affected countries from 1950 to 2015. The chart shows results from two species of mosquito, including yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti; left) and Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus; right).
On the heat map, each block represents one year, with red showing an increase in spread and blue showing a decrease in spread. The chart shows that, since 1995, the vast majority of countries have experienced an increase in the rate of the spread of dengue fever.
The increase in the rate of the spread of dengue fever could be driven by changes in environmental conditions as a result of climate change, says Prof Hugh Montgomery, co-chair of The Lancet Countdown and a professor at University College London. He told the press conference:
“It’s essentially because of the transmissibility, the ability of the virus to be spread by mosquito vector. As you get areas that get wetter, the mosquito has a habitat it can live in; populations go up as it gets warmer, they breed more frequently, they feed faster. So it gets easier to spread the bug, and that’s really why we’re seeing a doubling in the spread rate of dengue cases.”
Looking to the future, the report also explores how climate change could bring new health-related woes, including an increase in the displacement of people as a result of sea level rise.
It is clear that both the current and potential future impacts of climate change on health demand immediate action on tackling fossil fuel use, says Cox, adding that it is not too late to stem some of the effects of climate change on human health. He tells Carbon Brief:
“The co-benefits of action on climate are so huge, I think, well, maybe we present this the wrong way. Rather than saying ‘we should tackle climate change and there’s a co-benefit for health’, it should be ‘we need to do this for our health, and there’s a co-benefit on climate’.”
Montgomery echoed the call for immediate action to tackle climate change for the good of human health. He told the press conference:
“It is too late to avoid impacts, they’re here and if we all die tomorrow and stop producing any CO2, we’re still locked in for a temperature rise. There is a lag between CO2 emissions and the warming that will come. It’s like sticking an extra duvet on, the temperature will slowly rise to a new equilibrium. So we’re locked in for change for a long time to come and those harmful effects we’re seeing already from perhaps little around 1C of temperature rise, we’ve got another half degree as a minimum yet to come.”
However, there are reasons to be hopeful, he adds, pointing to progress on climate action within the last decade, including a shift away from electricity produced from coal and an increase in the investment into electric cars. He adds:
“Climate change can be fixed right now, there isn’t a problem with the technology, it’s readily available and deployable. The money is available for it, the only thing that’s lacking is the political will to connect the money to the infrastructure.”
This article first appeared on the CarbonBrief website and has been republished here with permission. To view the article in its natural habitat please click here.
Image: Workers at a construction site in Ethiopia. Outdoor workers are particularly exposed to high temperatures can suffer health consequences from a warming climate. Credit: Dfid. CC by 2.0
In mid-July, a United States federal judge sided with a group of Texas inmates who sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) over summer heat conditions at the Wallace Pack Unit near Houston. The groundbreaking decision deemed that exposure to extreme heat was cruel and unusual punishment. The decision also referenced the impact of climate change. This ruling has brought attention to a demographic often excluded from the climate change narrative: Prisoners. Despite the correctional sector’s distinct risks to climate change, officials have taken very little action to adapt their systems and facilities. Climate change is causing average temperatures to rise and making heatwaves more intense, leaving prisoners highly at risk to the deadly effects of extreme heat, especially in the Southern United States.
Dangerous and deadly heat
While extreme heat is a pervasive phenomenon that will affect every American, prisoners are particularly vulnerable. Heat-risk multipliers, such as old age, poor mental or physical health, and use of medications are very common in prisons. These factors limit the body’s ability to acclimate to heat, which often leads to heat cramps, dehydration, and heat stroke. When these factors combine with the institutionalized negligence that permeates through the correction sector, the outcome is often deadly. Since 1998, 23 prisoners in Texas prisons have died from heat-related illnesses, many of whom had pre-existing conditions.
Prisoners have no reprieve from the heat. Officials often house them in close-quarter facilities that are overcrowded. Since the human body generates heat and humidity, the number of bodies in a prison directly influences the thermal environment. Excessive body heat combines with ambient heat to create an unbearably hot environment. Prisoners sometimes endure weeks of temperatures close to and over 40 °C (104 °F), and these heat spells will only get longer as climate change intensifies and extends heatwaves.
Existing regulations and practices fail to keep Texas prisons cool enough. The prisons are constructed from brick, metal, and glass, which absorb heat. Seventy percent of Texas prisons do not have air-conditioning, and temperatures can reach up to 43 °C (109 °F). Moreover, many prisons lack adequate ventilation, making the hot air humid and stagnant. The high humidity prevents sweat from evaporating, greatly increasing the risk of heatstroke. Fans offer no relief because once temperatures surpass 32 degrees Celsius (90 °F), fans only circulate, rather than cool the air.
A lethal mix of all these problems caused the death of a prisoner, Larry McCollum. McCollum was transferred to a facility with no air conditioning in July, and assigned a cell with no fan and a non-opening window. Although inmates were supposed to receive regular refills of ice water, McCollum did not own a cup because prison policy forbade him from purchases at the commissary until after 30 days. However, after a week, McCollum was found dead in his bunk. He suffered a heat-stroke in the middle of the night after the heat index (apparent temperature) reached 65 degrees Celsius (150 °F).
Adaptating the correctional sector
The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the only federal standard for prisons, prohibits cruel and unusual punishment and guarantees humane conditions for prisoners. It was under this amendment that the federal judge issued an injunction ordering TDCJ to reduce temperatures to 31 °C (88 °F) where heat-sensitive residents reside, and give inmates regular access to air-conditioned areas.
Although the court did not mandate any specific methods for heat reduction, plenty of options exist. The primary long-term solution should be reducing the prison population. Efforts to move away from mass incarceration, to more effective strategies for reducing crime, pair perfectly with the correction sector’s need to adapt to climate change and provide better conditions for inmates. A smaller inmate population would mean less body heat, and more funds to allocate to heat-reduction and adaptation measures. Freeing up the budget would hopefully allow the TDJC to phase out heat-sensitive prisons, and ensure that new facilities include climate-resiliency measurers.
The installation of air-conditioning in prisons seems an obvious short-term solution. However, air conditioning is often a point of contention between officials. Some officials view air-conditioning as a luxury that criminals do not deserve, and have fought against inmate advocacy groups. Others believe that installation costs and use of air-conditioning is too high. Because of this bureaucratic gridlock, Texas prisons will most likely not expand air-conditioning to the rest of the inmates.
Luckily, other options exist. Retrofitting facilities with passive cooling measurers is effective, easy to implement, and most importantly, inexpensive. For example, installing awnings over windows could reduce inside temperatures by 65% on south-facing windows, and by 77% on west-facing windows. Reflective roofs could greatly reduce the indoor heat index by reflecting solar radiation. Installing a reflective roof is as easy as painting it white.
Unfortunately, this issue is not isolated to Texas. Last week a video surfaced of Louisiana prisoners screaming for relief from the heat. Extreme heat could become a sector-wide problem, as previously immune facilities become hotter. The case of extreme heat in prisons exposes how climate change will exacerbate certain social justice issues, and how successful adaptation will save lives.
Cover photo by JQPubliq/Flickr (CC BY 2.0): Inmates at the Brooklyn House of Detention playing basketball at sunset.