A Hotter Planet Is Already Killing Americans, Health Experts Warn

Rising temperatures and environmental pollutants are already endangering the health and well-being of Americans, with fatal consequences for thousands of older men and women, a team of public health experts warned Wednesday. Their report, published in The Lancet, called on lawmakers to stem the rise of planet-warming gases in the next five years.

The section on the United States presents climate change as a public health risk now, rather than a hazard faced by future generations. It points to the immediate dangers of extreme heat, wildfires and air pollution, and makes the case for rapidly shifting to a green economy as a way to improve public health.

The coronavirus pandemic, the authors point out, has served as a reminder of the urgent need to strengthen the country’s public health system — something that’s going to be all the more necessary for Americans to deal with the health effects of climate change, which, the authors conclude, disproportionately harm those with the fewest resources to respond to threats.

“The overarching theme I stress to the incoming administration is making health central,” said Dr. Renee N. Salas, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the United States policy paper contained in The Lancet report, in a call with reporters. “Climate action is a prescription for health.”

The report contains a set of broad recommendations aimed squarely at the incoming presidential administration. To improve the health of Americans, the authors recommend ending subsidies for fossil fuels, investing in public transit options, and reducing the use of nitrogen fertilizers on American farms, which are a source of both air pollution and planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have to stop investing in what is a thing of the past and health-harming,” Dr. Salas said.

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. In the last 20 years, the report finds, extreme heat has been linked to a 50 percent increase in deaths of people older than 65, with 296,000 deaths in 2018. Most of those deaths were in Japan, China, India and parts of Europe.

Extreme heat also makes it hard to work, especially outdoors. According to the report, 302 billion hours of potential labor productivity were lost in 2019 alone. Workers in hot, humid countries like India and Indonesia were most affected.

In the last 20 years there were also more days when the risk of wildfires was high. Fires have grown bigger and more severe in landscapes like the Western United States, destroying four million acres in California alone so far this year. The number of days when there is wildfire smoke in the air have risen sharply, too.

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