Pandemic recovery plans that invest in or subsidize fossil fuels will increase the spread of infectious diseases globally by contributing to climate change, according to a new report from The Lancet, a leading medical journal.
Increased infections of dengue fever, cholera and malaria are just some of the ways, along with more severe heat waves and wildfires, that failure to act on climate change will have catastrophic health impacts around the world and in the United States, according to “The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change,” which has 93 authors across 43 academic institutions and United Nations agencies.
“This report is a code-red for our healthy future,” said co-author Anthony Costello, a professor of global health and sustainable development at the University College London.
The report, released last night, takes particular aim at policy missteps—such as coronavirus economic recovery plans—that could worsen climate health impacts.
“A fossil-fuel driven recovery, although potentially meeting narrow and near-term economic targets, could push the world irrevocably off course for the ambitions of the Paris Agreement, with enormous costs to human health,” the report states.
The report notes that just 18 percent of post-pandemic economic recovery funds are expected to lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and that economic recovery from COVID-19 already has led to a 5 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 2021.
What’s more, 77 percent of countries reviewed in the report are still subsidizing fossil fuel development, with some of those subsidies “accounting for many times their whole health budget,” said Marina Romanello, a “Countdown” author from the University of Cambridge.
“Current COVID-19 recovery plans are threatening to lock the world into a future of increased emissions and ill-health,” she said. “As trillions of dollars are being unrolled for COVID recovery, we are really risking that those dollars are assigned to high-carbon intensity activities and a carbonized recovery.”
The report’s release comes just weeks before world leaders will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, for COP26 talks, where scientists say nations must agree to sharp declines in fossil fuel usage in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Costello said he hoped the report will serve as “a wake-up call” before that meeting.
“We are calling for urgent, globally coordinated action to mitigate climate change and to integrate climate change mitigation into COVID-19 recovery plans,” he said. “Global leaders will have the opportunity at COP26 to really move things and tackle the climate and health crises, and all countries must commit to more ambitious climate plans that include health equity.”
More fossil fuel development due to the current pandemic only increases the likelihood that infectious diseases will spread, as climate change provides more suitable habitat for vector- and water-borne diseases.
The report tracks four “climate-sensitive” diseases, with “environmental possibilities of transmission” increasing for each disease.
One example is Vibrio, a water-borne bacteria that can lead to diarrhea and that is becoming more common as waters warm. That includes in the Baltic Sea and along the United States’ Northeast Atlantic coast, where coastline suitable for the pathogen is increasing by 35 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
Globally, climate change is also creating “ideal” conditions for transmission of dengue fever, chikungunya, zika, malaria and cholera.
Once again, the United States is not immune, with the likelihood of dengue fever spreading in the country steadily increasing since the 1950s, thanks to changes to temperature, rainfall and humidity increasing habitat for the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
The report tracks a metric called the “transmission potential,” where a potential over one means that a single case of dengue can cause more than one additional infection and potentially lead to an outbreak, in the right conditions. In 2017, the transmission potential for dengue fever in the United States briefly rose above one for the first time. Longer term, the transmission potential for the disease was an average of 55 percent higher between 2016 and 2020 than it was in the 1950s.
Infectious disease is just one way in which climate change is harming health at a global scale.
The report calculates that in 2020, adults older than 65 years old were affected by 3.1 billion more days of heat wave exposure than they were between 1986 and 2005. Senior citizens most affected are those living in China, India, Japan, Indonesia and the United States.
Indeed, a separate United States brief accompanying the report found that American senior citizens experienced a total of nearly 300 million more days of heat wave exposure in 2020 compared to between 1986 and 2005, making last year the second-highest year of heat exposure since 1986. Similarly, infants younger than 1 year old experienced nearly 22 million more days of extreme heat wave exposure in 2020.
“Signs in the majority of 44 indicators we are looking at every year are pointing to code red: Things are getting worse,” said Dr. Jeremy Hess, a co-author of the U.S. brief.
Hess’ day job is as a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Washington, where he also directs the school’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.
He says he personally saw the impacts of climate change in his emergency room during the Pacific Northwest heat dome this June.
“I saw paramedics with burns on their knees from kneeling down to care for patients with heat stroke. I saw far too many patients in the emergency department die as a result of heat exposure,” he said. “Unfortunately, this was the first year I can say confidently that I and my patients very clearly experienced the impacts of climate change.”
U.S. brief authors have some policy prescriptions for the Biden administration to help stem the health impacts of climate change—including passing an infrastructure package with robust climate measures.
“We have to reduce our toxic dependence on fossil fuels with healthy systems that nourish our communities and keep us healthy,” Hess said. “Congress has an opportunity to do that with the reconciliation package—they have to get it done.”
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.