Man in heatwave.

An older man pauses while exercising during a heatwave.

(Photo: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Study Warns Human Health Still 'At the Mercy' of Fossil Fuels

"Further expansion of fossil fuels is reckless and the data clearly shows that it threatens the health and well-being of every person," one report author said.

Heat-related deaths could rise by 370% if policymakers and energy executives allow temperatures to rise by 2°C above preindustrial levels by the end of the century, a new Lancet study found .

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change on Tuesday released its eighth annual report tracking the impact of the climate crisis on global health. It is the first to offer projections for the future. In particular, the report authors emphasized the need to phase out fossil fuels that are baking the planet, putting human health and the Earth's systems that sustain it at risk.

"The diagnosis in this report is very clear," Dr. Renee Salas, one of the 114 scientists behind the report who also works in emergency care at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told The New York Times . "Further expansion of fossil fuels is reckless and the data clearly shows that it threatens the health and well-being of every person."

The report first describes how the climate crisis is currently impacting health. 2023 saw the highest temperatures in more than 100,000 years, and this has exposed more people to dangerous heat, including the most vulnerable. Infants younger than 1 and adults older than 65 were exposed to double the heatwave days that they were between 1986 and 2005. What's more, heat-related deaths for those over 65 have climbed by 85% compared with 1990 through 2000.

In the U.S. alone, heat-related deaths for those over 65 increased by 88% from 2018 to 2022 compared with 2000 to 2004, and approximately 23,200 elderly adults died of heat exposure last year.

"These numbers remind me of the elderly patients I see in my own hospital with heatstroke," Salas told the Times.

"This is an industry that is actually killing people in large numbers and making them ill in even larger numbers."

Yet as stark as the U.S. numbers are, the report also points to growing inequalities between health outcomes in richer and poorer nations.

"We're facing a crisis on top of a crisis," Georgiana Gordon-Strachan, who directs The Lancet Countdown Regional Center for Small Island Developing States, told Euronews .

"People living in poorer countries, who are often least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, are bearing the brunt of the health impacts, but are least able to access funding and technical capacity to adapt to the deadly storms, rising seas, and crop-withering droughts worsened by global heating," Gordon-Strachan said.

The report calls out the fossil fuel industry in particular, and says that the world is moving in the wrong direction in weening itself off of oil, gas, and coal.

"In 2022, The Lancet Countdown warned that people's health is at the mercy of fossil fuels and stressed the transformative opportunity of jointly tackling the concurrent climate change, energy, cost-of-living, and health crises for human health and well-being," the report authors said. "This year's report finds few signs of such progress."

For example, the authors noted that the early 2023 plans of the world's top 20 fossil fuel companies would overshoot the Paris agreement goals by 173% by 2040.

"All our indicators on the fossil fuel industry are extremely relevant because this is an industry that is actually killing people in large numbers and making them ill in even larger numbers," report co-author Paul Ekins, a University College of London economist, told The Associated Press.

If this level of inaction continues, the report's current indicators "could be just an early symptom of a very dangerous future unless we tackle climate change urgently," Lancet Countdown executive director Marina Romanello told AP .

If temperatures rise to 2°C above preindustrial levels by 2100, every health hazard tracked by the report will increase, Axios reported .

In this case, heat-related deaths would rise by 370% for people over 65 by mid-century and 683% by the last two decades of the century. If world leaders don't do anything to either prevent or adapt to climate change, those numbers would rise to 433% and 1,537% respectively. In the 2°C scenario, labor loss due to heat would rise by 50% by mid-century and heatwaves could push 524.9 million more people into food insecurity.

The risk of infectious diseases would also increase, with the ideal coastal conditions for the Vibrio pathogen increasing by 17% to 25% and the chance of catching dengue increasing by 36% to 37%.

However, the report said it was not too late to take action. Rapidly phasing out fossil fuels would both reduce climate risks and prevent many of the 1.9 million deaths every year due to air pollution from the burning of dirty fuels.

"There is still room for hope," Romanello told Euronoews, adding that the planned focus on health at the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP28, presented "the opportunity of our lifetime."

"If climate negotiations drive an equitable and rapid phaseout of fossil fuels, accelerate mitigation, and support adaptation efforts for health, the ambitions of the Paris agreement to limit global heating to 1.5°C are still achievable, and a prosperous healthy future lies within reach," Romanello said.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.