“Health at the mercy of fossil fuels” is the headline of the 2022 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change that was released by the renowned medical journal Tuesday. The seventh annual report tracks 43 health and climate indicators, including exposure to extreme heat. This year’s edition is another grim study of how our “fossil fuel addiction” is killing us. The litany of impacts the Lancet focuses on looks a lot like the lists of possible effects put together in the six scientific climate assessments issued by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 1990. The Lancet report is immense, but succinctly, it puts its conclusion up front in Section 1:
Climate change is affecting the health of people worldwide directly with increased exposure to extreme weather, and indirectly with impacts on the physical, natural, and social systems on which health depends. Climatic changes are also amplifying the existing threats to food and water security, built infrastructure, essential services, and livelihoods.
But as the Lancet author-doctors also say, there are glimmers of hope if we humans move quickly to stop poisoning ourselves and the planet. If you’re tired of hearing researchers saying that, think about how they feel.
A few more words from the doctors:
“This year’s report finds that a persistent fossil fuel addiction is amplifying the health impacts of the concurrent crises we face. Despite these health harms, governments and companies continue prioritising fossil fuels to the detriment of peoples’ health. Today, fossil fuel giants pursue plans which would lead to emissions vastly exceeding levels compatible with the Paris Agreement goals. If these strategies are pursued, they would lock the world into a fatally warmer future with catastrophic health impacts. As they cash record profits, the failure to reprioritise funding and invest in a healthy future becomes evident. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Indeed it doesn’t. But cue the whiners who will inevitably complain that the doctors should stick to their field and not go all political on us. Which is always the cry of the business-as-usual crowd while they put their dark money where it will do the most damage.
The doctors are merely reiterating somewhat more forcefully than usual the well-known truth: Fossil fuel burning is killing literally millions of us every year: There were 1.2 million premature deaths in 2021 just from airborne PM2.5 (particulates) alone, 11,800 of those in the United States. If that’s not a health matter deserving physicians’ attention, what is?
Changes in climate from this burning last year boosted heatwave-related deaths worldwide by 68% in vulnerable populations (adults over 65, and infants up to 1), and 74% in the United States, according to the Lancet report. Agricultural workers were among the most affected. Besides the deaths, the doctors calculated that heatwaves meant the loss of 470 billion hours of work in 2021. That’s about 40% more than in the 1990s. The associated economic loss was estimated at about $700 billion. Compared with the 1950s, some 30% more land is now affected by extreme drought events.
I recommend going to the Lancet Countdown visualization page to see bigger and crisper versions of this and the other charts. If you want to read the whole report, you’ll have to register.
The extreme heat, coupled with droughts, has expanded food insecurity to nearly 100 million more people than before, many of them already living on the edge. Epidemiological computer models showed annual heat-related deaths rising from 187,000 a year in 2000-2004 to an annual average of 312,000 in each of the past five years.
And then there are infectious diseases. For instance, periods when malaria could likely be transmitted grew significantly longer compared with the 1950s, and so did the likelihood of dengue transmission, the report stated.
Said University College of London health and climate researcher Dr. Marina Romanello, executive director of the Lancet Countdown, “Our health is at the mercy of fossil fuels. We’re seeing a persistent addiction to fossil fuels that is not only amplifying the health impacts of climate change, but which is also now at this point compounding with other concurrent crises that we’re globally facing, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, energy crisis and food crisis that were triggered after the war in Ukraine.”
Damian Carrington at The Guardian cited the response to the report of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who has been a relentless, if frustrated, voice for serious and just climate action: “The climate crisis is killing us. It is undermining not just the health of our planet, but the health of people everywhere—through toxic air pollution, diminishing food security, higher risks of infectious disease outbreaks, record extreme heat, drought, floods and more.”
The Lancet report also tracks the fossil fuel system. It found that 80% of the 86 governments assessed were subsidising fossil fuels, providing a collective $400bn in 2019. These subsidies were bigger than national health spending in five countries, including Iran and Egypt, and more than 20% of health spending in another 16 countries.
“Governments have so far failed to provide the smaller sum of $100bn per year to help support climate action in lower income countries,” the report notes.
The report says the strategies of the 15 biggest oil and gas companies remain sharply at odds with ending the climate emergency, “regardless of their climate claims and commitments”.
In this regard, the Lancet Countdown notes:
[O]il and gas companies are registering record profits, while their production strategies continue to undermine people’s lives and well-being. An analysis of the production strategies of 15 of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, as of February 2022, revealed they exceed their share of emissions consistent with 1·5°C of global heating by 37% in 2030 and 103% in 2040, continuing to undermine efforts to deliver a low-carbon, healthy, liveable future.
At his substack, The Crucial Years, author and veteran climate activist Bill McKibben noted: “I’ve rarely read a more comprehensive, or more devastating report on the effect of global warming. And its authors are pulling no punches.” He goes on to reinforce the message about fossil fuel companies:
My only quibble is that when one says “fossil fuel addiction,” it might summon up an image of the wrong culprit. Humans aren’t addicted to fossil fuels—we’re just as happy getting our power from solar panels or wind turbines. Happier, even. ...
This profit—soaring this year thanks to one man, Vladimir Putin—keeps tempting the banks and financial institutions to send more money their way, so they can expand their infrastructure and lock in their dominance decades longer.
It’s Big Oil’s that’s addicted to fossil fuel profits—but the side effects are killing the planet.
Big Oil is addicted to something else as well: lying. They’ve stopped outright denial of the climate crisis. Now their ads and press releases are all about how supposedly green they are. Bald-faced lying. By their actions, not their words, shall you know them.
Now, about those glimmers of hope. An energy transition is underway. But still barely so. Acceleration of what’s already happening is key. Some acceleration is happening, though one with all kinds of contradictions, like the notorious provision in the Schumer-Manchin compromise requiring federal oil and gas leases in exchange for wind and solar leases. Like the stepped-up use of coal in China as it simultaneously invests more than the next three countries combined in green expansion.
The following Lancet chart shows the steep rise in the percentage of electricity generated by renewables since the first IPCC climate assessment was written 32 years ago. An encouraging glimmer, to be sure. But that steep climb needs to become even steeper.
Had there not been so much obstructionism, that curve could have been upturned much sooner, and we wouldn’t be so under the gun. But the belated green transition is nevertheless happening all around us now, just as the impacts of climate change are happening all around us. It’s a race, whether we like it or not. And we’re behind. If we manage to speed up the transition, then as the doctors say, we can have healthy energy delivered to people in their homes, reduce energy poverty, and save those millions being killed now with dirty energy.
But to do so requires what the doctors prescribe: ditching those fossil fuels faster. That means we have to generate more renewables faster. And that means upgrading the grid to transmit electricity faster, perhaps the hardest task of all. It’s all of a piece, you can’t have one without the others.
Given the time frame available to us, getting all that done would be helped with the powers the president would gain from declaring a national climate emergency—after the midterms. This wouldn’t give President Joe Biden carte blanche, of course, certainly not if Congress is under partial or complete Republican control come January. But it could help speed along green programs and projects that Congress wouldn’t be able to block. And if the Democrats maintain control of Congress, then the urgency can be further amplified. How much more evidence is required before the response is equal to the gravity of the situation? We’re already dropping dead. Isn’t that enough?
The Lancet report concludes:
With countries facing multiple crises simultaneously, their policies on COVID-19 recovery and energy sovereignty will have profound, and potentially irreversible consequences for health and climate change. However, accelerated climate action would deliver cascading benefits, with more resilient health, food, and energy systems, and improved security and diplomatic autonomy, minimising the health impact of health shocks. With the world in turmoil, putting human health at the centre of an aligned response to these concurrent crises could represent the last hope of securing a healthier, safer future for all.
Report co-author Dr. Renee Salas, a Boston emergency room physician and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “This isn’t a rare cancer that we don’t have a treatment for. We know the treatment we need. We just need the willpower from all of us and our leaders to make it happen.”
And some arm-twisting.