Report: Warming planet poses immediate health dangers; rapid climate action needed

Air pollution, heat waves, extreme weather events, wildfires, and environmental toxins—all being exacerbated by climate change—are damaging human health, according to a wide-ranging new analysis from The Lancet. The report urges lawmakers to take action to curtail the use of fossil fuels, which contribute to planetary warming, over the next five years.

Called The Lancet Countdown on Climate Change and Health, the report, published December 2, 2020, was co-authored by experts from more than 35 research institutions around the world. Renee Salas, Yerby Fellow at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was lead author of a policy brief focused on the United States.

“The overarching theme I stress to the incoming administration is making health central,” said Salas in a December 2, 2020 New York Times article. “Climate action is a prescription for health.”

Salas and other authors of the U.S. policy brief maintained that climate change is an immediate public health risk and that quickly shifting to a green economy could improve the situation. They noted that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need to strengthen the nation’s public health system—which will be even more important in coming years as Americans contend with the health effects of climate change.

In addition to fueling pollution and extreme weather, climate change is also worsening pollen levels, mental health, water-borne diseases, and human migration and displacement, the authors wrote. They added that climate-related health harms fall disproportionately on people of color and low-income populations, exacerbating existing inequities.

The brief recommended that the U.S. end subsidies for fossil fuels; reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizers on farms, which contribute to air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions; shift to zero-carbon electricity generation; and increase access to healthy transport options such as zero-carbon public transportation and electric vehicles.

The U.S. policy brief was launched at a December 3 online event featuring 19 speakers, including Salas; Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and chair of the C-CHANGE board of advisors; and Howard Koh, professor of the practice of public health leadership at Harvard Chan School and former assistant secretary for health during the Obama administration.

Read the New York Times article: Hotter Planet Already Poses Fatal Risks, Health Experts Warn

Read or listen to a WBUR article: ‘We Don’t Have To Live This Way’: Doctors Call For Climate Action

Read a C-CHANGE article: 2020 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: U.S. Policy Report

Watch the 2020 Lancet Countdown U.S. launch event