Our visual narratives of climate change have, historically, been replete with spectacular images of fire and flood. But the blood orange skies that loomed over San Francisco in early September—precipitated by a freak lightning storm that set regions surrounding the Bay Area ablaze—were what captured the popular imagination this year, at least in the United States. Photographs of the phenomenon, mundane otherwise, paint an ominous portrait of what awaits our warming world—more disaster, yes, but also warpings of everyday life as we know it.
What’s at stake isn’t just the blueness of skies, but centuries of progress in human health that have allowed us to pursue longer, more active, and overall more fulfilling lives. To drive this home, a new report published by The Lancet Countdown, an interdisciplinary collaboration between 120 experts and 35 institutions, uses rigorous data collection and analysis to connect the dots between the well-being of our planet and ourselves. More than a compendium of stats, the report is a call to action for health professionals and policymakers the world over. If we want to retain the gains and livelihoods we’ve made as a species, it argues, we must recognize and mitigate the losses we’ve wrought on the natural world.
From Siberia to California, wildfire scorched the earth in 2020. The number of people exposed to wildfire risks from 2016 to 2019, when compared with 2001 to 2004, has increased in 128 countries—in other words, most of the world. In California—no stranger to natural disaster but also known and revered for its temperate climes—this year was its worst for wildfires. Barely a day after the Countdown report was released, fire caught in the canyons of Orange County, fueled by wind gusts that exceeded 70 miles per hour. Over Labor Day weekend, the calamity was even worse—complete with far-reaching blackouts, incendiary bush fires, and barrages of military helicopters dispatched to rescue whomever they could.
Globally, for all ages, the number of heat-related deaths in 2018 was almost 300,000—a sad testament to the combined power of skyrocketing temperatures and intensifying heat waves that occur in the hundreds of millions each year. Extreme heat has been linked to everything from civil unrest and political instability to violence and suicide. In the past 20 years, according to the Countdown report, the number of people in the United States who have died due to heat-related causes has nearly doubled, reaching a record-high peak of 19,000 in 2018. To live past the age of 65, well into our 80s, 90s, and even 100s, was a hard-won milestone that some countries, as of 2015, have yet to reach. Today it is in jeopardy.
According to another report released this year by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, extreme weather and natural disasters have killed more than 400,000 people worldwide since 2010. Notably excluded from that total are fatalities caused by infectious diseases like HIV, Ebola, Zika, and of course Covid-19, many of which make the leap to human hosts from other members of the animal kingdom. In less than a year Covid-19 has claimed more than 1.5 million lives around the world, while almost one million people die from HIV annually. Although infectious disease outbreaks aren’t classified as natural disasters per se, they’re inextricably bound up in climate and ecological dynamics—meaning that as environmental conditions become more volatile and landscapes more fragmented, the footholds available to pathogenic viruses increase in breadth and number.
The Countdown report says that Covid-19 will contextualize our response to climate change for many years to come—as it should, given that disturbed habitats, deforestation, and wildlife markets are creating more ecological niches where novel disease-causing viruses and bacteria might thrive. Examples given in the report—to say nothing of unknown viruses, or what pandemic expert Dennis Carroll calls “viral dark matter”—include malaria, dengue, and Vibrio, a coast-dwelling bacteria that can cause water- and food-borne illnesses. In some parts of the Northeast, coastal waters have become 99 percent more suitable to Vibrio bacteria in just five years, permitting the propagation of a microorganism that can cause flesh-eating infections and even death in humans.
One European study estimates that nearly half the global population remains unaware of the connection between climate and disease—a gap in general knowledge that health professionals, scientists, and other thought leaders, using the current crisis as a catalyst, can begin to fill. From 2018 to 2019 alone, media coverage of the intersection of climate change and health at large increased 96 percent, while between 2007 and 2019 research on the same subject increased eight-fold. As was the case with tobacco restrictions and sanitation and hygiene practices more broadly, the science supporting the relationship between human and planetary health is there, and the devastating effects of Covid-19 are positioned to give it more prominence. What is needed now—what the Countdown report calls for—are economic, social, and environmental policies that codify this knowledge into a framework for sustained action.
To this effect, the report recommends a slate of climate-mediated public health interventions specific to the United States that run the gamut of national infrastructure—among them divesting from fossil fuels, shifting to zero-carbon electricity, and reforming antiquated standards of agricultural production. It also advocates for an increase in public health spending that might begin to repair the growing damages of climate change. In the fiscal year 2018-19, barely $13 per person was spent on climate change adaptation in the health sector. We must not only increase that share substantially, but also communicate the urgency of such measures to the public. We only have one planet—and with Covid-19, one major opportunity to rally momentum around efforts to protect it. Let’s not allow either to go to waste.