Climate Crisis Threatens Human Health with ‘Dangerous Future’, Lancet Report Warns
The 2022 edition of the Lancet Countdown report warned that “global health lies at the mercy of fossil fuels”. The 2023 report, published on Wednesday, finds “few, if any” signs that the world has taken heed of the impending health crisis.

A new report from the Lancet Countdown, an annual assessment of progress toward the climate targets of the 2015 Paris Agreement, paints a grim picture of the escalating health risks associated with a warming planet.

The report, compiled by an international consortium of 114 scientists, health experts, and researchers, warns that the world is on track for a “dangerous future” where climate-linked health crises from extreme weather events, including deadly heatwaves, drought-driven food insecurity, and the spread of infectious diseases, will become the daily reality for millions.

The report’s grim findings underscore the urgent need for immediate and decisive action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and avert the worst consequences of climate change on human health. If the world warms by 2°C above pre-industrial levels, human health faces an “intolerable future with rapidly growing hazards,” the report warns.

Extreme heat is already driving death and food insecurity around the world, with heat-related deaths of people over 65 increasing by 85% since 1990, the report found. The average person now experiences 86 days of “health-threatening high temperatures every year”, 60% of which are attributable to climate change. 

“Global mean temperatures are rising and we’re increasingly exposed to extreme heat,” said Dr Marina Romanello, executive director of the Lancet Countdown and lead author of the report. “Extreme heat is particularly dangerous for elderly populations, populations living with underlying health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease and kidney disease, and pregnant women, their unborn children, [as well as] very young children and those with neurological conditions.”

The higher frequency and intensity of heatwaves are also exacerbating food insecurity, with an estimated 127 million more people experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity compared to the 1981 to 2010 period, placing “millions of people at risk of malnutrition and potentially irreversible health effects”, according to the report.

A devastating drought in Somalia, part of a wider crisis across the Horn of Africa, has claimed the lives of 43,000 people, with half of those deaths being children under five, according to a March report by Somalia’s Ministry of Health. The drought has also pushed nearly half of the country’s children under five – 1.4 million children – into acute malnutrition, according to UNICEF.

The report further highlights the contributions of climate change to the proliferation of infectious vector-borne diseases such as Dengue and West Nile Virus, as climate change makes people more vulnerable to the diseases and the world more hospitable to the mosquitoes that carry them. Warmer temperatures are extending the geographical range where disease-borne mosquitoes can survive and thrive, as well as extending their mating season, allowing them to reproduce in greater numbers.

“The climate crisis is escalating the severity of extreme weather events, increasing food insecurity, exacerbating respiratory diseases, and fueling the spread of infectious diseases,” declared Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). “The world is moving in the wrong direction, unable to curb its addiction to fossil fuels and leaving vulnerable communities behind in the much-needed energy transition.” 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has long advocated for a more prominent role for health considerations in international climate negotiations, emphasizing the substantial health benefits of decisive climate action. In the wake of the Paris Agreement’s ratification in 2015, the UN health agency hailed the treaty as ‘potentially the strongest public health agreement of the century.’

However, the 1.5°C temperature goal enshrined in the agreement is swiftly fading from reach. The health consequences of the already elevated global temperature, averaging 1.14°C above pre-industrial levels, are already impacting millions of lives worldwide.

“Our data shows us that a thriving future still lies within our reach,” said Romanello. “The most concerning thing is that we’re accelerating in the wrong direction.”

Developing countries excluded from green transition as finance falters

As developing nations bear the brunt of climate change’s devastating impacts, financial support from wealthy countries for climate adaptation remains woefully inadequate, leaving them ill-equipped to cope with intensifying extreme weather events and rising health risks. The report highlights the persistent lack of “access to funding and technical capacity” in low- and middle-income countries, further exacerbating deep-seated health inequities within and between nations.

The Lancet’s findings echo the conclusions of the UN Environment Programme’s Adaptation Gap report, released last week, which found that adaptation finance flows to developing countries fell to just $21 billion in 2022, compared to the $367 billion required every year through 2030.

“The most vulnerable and minoritised communities are left the least protected, and the deep within-country and between-country health inequities are further exacerbated,” the report states. “This scarcity is aggravated by the rising economic losses from climate change impacts, and the persistent failure of wealthier countries reach the promised sum of $100 billion annually to support countries most affected by climate change.”

The consequences of this financial shortfall are stark: developing countries are being largely excluded from the accelerating shift to green energy technologies, despite their urgent need for these solutions. While clean renewable energy sources are gaining ground globally, their share in the world’s electricity generation still stands at a mere 9.5%. In low Human Development Index (HDI) countries, this figure plummets to just 2-3%, with 92% of domestic energy still derived from polluting fossil fuels.

“By and large, it is the very high human development index countries that are leading the way in the adoption of these green technologies in this new economic [era],” said Romanello. “Once again, we’re seeing that it is the most vulnerable countries that are being left behind in the zero-carbon transition and remain reliant on dirty fuels and exposed to health homes and energy poverty.”

Fossil fuel expansion threatens perilous future for human health

Change in fossil fuel lending in the years after the Paris Agreement, compared to the years preceding it. More than half of the 40 banks that lend most to the fossil fuel sector have increased lending since the Paris Agreement was signed.

The report’s predictive section, a new addition this year which projects the future impact of a warming climate on human health worldwide, underscores the alarming trajectory of global emissions which is “putting our collective future at risk”.

“Last year, the 2022 report said that our health was at the mercy of fossil fuels. Well, this report shows us is that it is even worse today,” said Romanello. “Looking at the 20 largest oil and gas companies around the world, we see that their plans today would lead to their share of emissions exceeding the targets of the Paris Agreement by 173% in 2040 – this is 61 percentage points more and last year when they were on track to exceed [1.5C levels] by 112%.”

This unabated fossil fuel expansion has placed the world on a perilous path towards a catastrophic 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. The Lancet findings echo those of the UN Environment Programme, which said in its Production Gap report last week that government plans to expand fossil fuel production despite the climate crisis were “throwing humanity’s future into question”. 

The health implications of this scenario are profound and far-reaching. Even a 2-degree Celsius warming scenario would bring unbearable health consequences, with heat-related deaths projected to surge by 370%, heat-related labour loss by 50%, and an additional 524.9 million people facing moderate to severe food insecurity, according to the report. The potential for dengue transmission is also expected to rise by up to 37%.

The health threats posed by fossil fuel burning are further exacerbated by government subsidies, which effectively incentivize the industry. Moreover, agricultural emissions continue to rise, alongside a global food system that promotes unhealthy, carbon-intensive diets.

Health consequences of a 2C warming scenario in 2040.

The finance sector is playing a significant role in perpetuating this crisis. Average annual lending to the fossil fuel sector grew from $549 billion in 2010–16 to $572 billion in 2017–21. More than half of the 40 banks that lend most to the fossil fuel sector have increased lending since the Paris Agreement was signed.

This expansion of fossil fuel production has also been driven by high energy prices, which have yielded $4 trillion in profits for oil and gas companies in recent years. As a result, these companies are allocating more capital to fossil fuel projects than to renewables, on which they spend just 4% of their budgets.

Despite the mounting evidence of the climate crisis, the world remains woefully off track. A U.N. assessment of global climate commitments published on Tuesday found that even if all were met, which is a significant uncertainty, emissions may only be about 5% lower in 2030 than in 2019. The world is currently on track to reduce emissions by just 2% by 2030, according to the report. To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, emissions need to be 43% lower.

“The world remains massively off track,” U.N. chief Antonio Guterres said.

The Lancet Countdown report’s findings further align with those of a concurrent World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report, which revealed on Wednesday that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2022.  

Another major climate report released concurrently, State of Climate Action 2023, concluded that “global efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C are failing across the board.” Across 42 indicators tracked in the report, published by Climate Action Tracker, only one – electric vehicle sales – is on track, while six – including deforestation, the carbon intensity of steel, and public financing for fossil fuels – are accelerating in the wrong direction.

“There is no end in sight to this trend,” warned WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “Despite decades of warnings from the scientific community, thousands of pages of reports and dozens of climate conferences, we are still heading in the wrong direction.”

“It takes thousands of years to remove carbon from the system once it’s emitted into the atmosphere,” said Taalas. “We must reduce the consumption of fossil fuels as a matter of urgency.”

Image Credits: Matt Howard/ Unslash.

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