Lancet Countdown: U.S. brief shows how climate change is impacting Americans and urges response from health care

Companion brief to annual Lancet Countdown report highlights the most nationally relevant findings to call attention to threats and opportunities climate change poses for health in the United States

The latest report on the Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change has been released.

The 2018 report features new data and methodologies showing how climate change is endangering human health, especially the risks posed by extreme heat across the globe. The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change follows the groundbreaking work of the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, which concluded that climate change threatens to undermine the past 50 years of gains in public health, and conversely, that a comprehensive response to climate change could be “the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.”

The global report, published annually in advance of the United Nations Climate Change Negotiations, represents the work of leading academics and technical experts from 27 partner academic and UN institutions. The 2018 report comes at a crucial time for international cooperation and national action on climate change, the implementation of the Paris Agreement, and the health benefits that result.

New research in this year’s report shows that rising temperatures as a result of climate change are already exposing us to an unacceptably high health risk.

Some of the recent health impacts of heat documented in the 2018 global report include:

  • 157 million more vulnerable people were subjected to a heatwave last year than in 2000, and 18 million more than in 2016.
  • 153 billion hours of work were lost in 2017 due to extreme heat as a result of climate change.
  • Heat stress, an early and severe effect of climate change, is commonplace and the health systems we rely on are ill-equipped to cope.

A special companion U.S. brief draws out the most nationally relevant findings of the global report to highlight the key threats and opportunities climate change poses for health in the United States. The U.S. brief calls attention to the impact climate change and air pollution are having on Americans now, identifies necessary actions to avoid worst-case scenarios while also preparing for an already changing climate, and emphasizes the vital role health professionals must play in educating the public about climate change.

The brief also recognizes the importance of mitigation efforts made by health systems and hospitals and identifies seven U.S. health systems that have made the commitment to 100 percent renewable electricity, including Boston Medical Center, Gundersen Health System, Kaiser Permanente, Partners HealthCare, Rochester Regional Health System, University of California Health, and University of Vermont Medical Center. At the same time, the brief’s authors say more action from the health sector is urgently needed.

Discover why Gundersen Health System was the first health system to become energy independent by relying on a mix of local renewable energy sources.

A few of the most notable takeaways from the U.S. brief include:

  • The majority of the United States experienced above average or record-setting heat in 2017, and heat waves in the U.S. are getting longer. Extreme heat causes spikes in deaths, emergency department visits, and hospital admissions, subsequently increasing health care costs.
  • Disruptions to infrastructure caused by the steady rise in billion-dollar weather and climate disasters since 1980 have significant health implications due to delayed or prevented access to medical care.
  • The United States needs to significantly hasten the transition to clean energy to save lives. Hospital systems should take the lead by converting to renewable sources and by divesting their investments from the fossil fuel industry.
  • While public health departments across America are preparing for climate change, climate change adaptation requires more substantial funding to protect the health of all Americans.
  • Health professionals have a vital role to play in educating patients and policymakers about the health impacts of climate change. There should be an increasing focus on training the current and next generation of health professionals in climate and health.

Health Care Without Harm participated in the official launch event in Washington D.C. to discuss the U.S. brief, its findings, and opportunities for action.

“The U.S. brief is an urgent call to action to the U.S. health care sector,” said Sarah Spengeman, associate director for Health Care Without Harm’s U.S. Climate and Health program. “As large consumers of energy, hospitals have both an ethical responsibility and a historic opportunity to honor their healing mission by leading the way to the 100 percent clean energy economy. Similarly, health professionals have the potential to change the public conversation about climate change to focus on protecting the health of our families, neighbors, and communities. As the findings of the recent IPCC report and 4th National Climate Assessment make clear, the time to act is now.”

Read the full U.S. brief.