The climate crisis is already having drastic consequences for human health

Children will be particularly vulnerable to the negative health effects caused by climate change, landmark report shows.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
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In a new, wide-ranging assessment focused on the human health impacts of climate change, a global collaboration of over 100 scientific experts paint a dire picture: The climate crisis is making us sick. If we fail to limit greenhouse gas emissions, we will be faced with extreme changes threatening food security, increasing vulnerability to infectious disease, reducing working hours and exposing populations to more extreme weather events like wildfires and drought.

The new report, released in prestigious medical journal The Lancet on Nov. 14, details the health risks posed by a rapidly-warming planet and is co-authored by 120 climatologists, health professionals and more. The 43-page document follows similar annual reports delivered by the Lancet Countdown in 2017 and 2018 and is a data-driven, deep analysis of the lifelong health consequences of soaring global temperatures.

It shows the dangerous path we're on if we don't make immediate, drastic changes with the authors suggesting the climate crisis will impact human health from infancy. Children and those in low-income and middle-income settings will be "among the worst affected."

"Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate," said Dr. Nick Watts, executive director of The Lancet Countdown, in a press release. "Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants."

Consider a child born today, Nov. 14, 2019.

As it stands, by their 71st birthday, the child will experience living on an Earth that is, on average, 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than pre-industrial levels. According to the report, that increase in temperature would affect the child's health throughout their life in myriad ways. Examining the health effects of climate change in 2018, the consortium of researchers demonstrate:

  • Heatwaves are increasing: In 2018, there were 220 million heatwave exposures globally, the highest on record.
  • Increased heat is also decreasing productivity. 2018 had better conditions than 2017, but the temperature increase saw 133.6 billion potential work hours lost.
  • More people were exposed to wildfires between 2015 to 2018 than between 2001 to 2004. More people were exposed to floods and storms in Africa, but no change in lethality was identified.
  • Infectious diseases had a bumper year in 2018. It was the second most favorable year for cholera transmission, malaria and dengue fever.
  • Increasing temperatures are dropping global crop yield potential for major grain crops such as maize, wheat, rice and soybean.
  • Sea surface temperatures are rising, threatening marine fish population and food security.
  • Air pollution is getting worse as carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. Potentially 7 million deaths were caused by air pollutants in 2016.

Continuing down the current path -- the so-called "business-as-usual" approach -- will see children born today facing unprecedented health challenges. Scientists are aware of the dangers and are calling on governments to act. Last week, over 11,000 scientists from a variety of disciplines sounded a thunderous warning, declaring a "climate emergency."

And the children, those that The Lancet's report suggests will be most affected by global heating, are rallying too. Spurred by 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, school strikes and climate change rallies have occurred across the globe in recent months.

"Young people are right to be angry, and concerned about the future -- the science is frightening. But we still have a window of opportunity," said Fiona Armstrong, founder of the Climate and Health Alliance.

Wednesday's report does provide a glimmer of hope. While coal use did increase in 2018, its share of energy generation decreased. Energy production by renewables is up, as is the use of electric vehicles. Slowly, progress is being made. However, the authors state "current progress is inadequate" and the world is struggling to cope.

"The climate crisis is one of the greatest threats to the health of humanity today, but the world has yet to see a response from governments that matches the unprecedented scale of the challenge facing the next generation," said Dr. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet.

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