Expert Commentary

6 story ideas in the 2023 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change report

Climate reports like the Lancet Countdown are large documents, laden with data, and can be difficult to summarize in one news story. But local journalists can look for specific issues that apply to their communities to produce stories that resonate with their audiences.

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The world will see a 4.7-fold increase in heat-related deaths between today and 2050 if governments and companies don’t curb the use of fossil fuels and mitigate climate change, according to the annual report of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, published on November 14.

Now in its eighth year, the report adds to a growing body of research documenting the impact of human-caused climate change on human health.

For the first time, the report provides projections on the growing risks to human health if global temperatures continue to rise and calls for a global commitment to transition to clean energy and energy efficiency.

“This report diagnoses a stark reality,” Dr. Renee Salas, one of the report’s authors and an emergency physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said during an online briefing for the report, held after its release on Nov. 15. “It makes clear that the further expansion of fossil fuels is reckless as it threatens the health and wellbeing of every person in the United States and around the world.”

The Countdown report is the result of a collaboration between 114 experts in 52 institutions and was funded by the Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation in London. It includes a global report and policy briefs for several countries, including the U.S.

The report was released ahead of the 28th UN Conference of the Parties of UNFCCC, commonly called COP28, which for the first time is featuring health as a key theme. COP28 will be held in oil-rich Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12.

Climate reports like the Lancet Countdown are large documents, laden with data, and can be difficult to summarize in one news story. But local journalists can look for specific issues that apply to their communities and speak with local experts, policymakers and residents to produce stories that resonate with their audiences.

Below are six tips to cover major climate reports like the Lancet Countdown.

(Courtesy of The Lancet Countdown.)

1. Explain how fossil fuels threaten human health.

Current climate change is mainly driven by human-generated greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil. When released into the atmosphere, the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O) intensify the greenhouse effect and increase the planet’s average temperature. Covering Climate Now offers several explainers and guidelines to help journalists understand and relay this information to their audiences.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, world leaders pledged to limit the globe’s temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100. But, given the lack of action by governments and companies, the world is on track to heat by 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, according to the Lancet Countdown report.

Today, the global temperature has increased by 1.14 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era, which spanned from 1850 to 1900. So far, 2023 has been the hottest year in more than 100,000 years, with heat records broken on every continent.

Climate change and rising temperatures increase the frequency of heat waves and droughts, jeopardizing access to food and water, and putting millions of people at risk of malnutrition and food insecurity. The report finds that frequent heat waves and droughts were responsible for 127 million more people experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity worldwide in 2021 than the annual average between 1981 and 2010.

In addition, air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels causes and worsens many health conditions, including heart and lung disease, neurologic and kidney conditions, mental health disorders, allergies, infectious diseases, pregnancy complications and poor birth outcomes, injuries and death, the Lancet Countdown report’s authors write.

“We have decades, decades of rigorous epidemiology and medical research showing the effects of air pollution on health,” Dr. Rebecca Philipsborn, an associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University, said during a Nov. 16 online briefing by the New England Journal of Medicine. “I think it’s settled science.”

Weather conditions, including extreme heat, can also reduce the safe hours to work or exercise outdoors.

Moreover, climate change can accelerate the spread of life-threatening infectious diseases, such as the West Nile virus, dengue, Zika, chikungunya, malaria, and Vibrio bacteria.

Vibrio bacteria live in certain coastal waters and thrive in warmer water temperatures. With increasing temperatures, they could put a record 1.4 billion people at risk of diarrheal disease, severe wound infections and sepsis, according to the report.

If the 1.5-degree Celsius target is missed and the world becomes hotter by 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, the length of the coastline suitable for Vibrio bacteria could expand by 17% to 25% and lead to 23% to 39% more cases globally. Also, the potential for dengue transmission could increase between 36% and 37%, the Lancet report finds.

2. Explain how climate change exacerbates inequities.

The Lancet Countdown report highlights how climate change exacerbates inequities around the world and in the U.S.

People who live in poor countries are often least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and yet bear the brunt of health impacts from climate change.

Wealthier countries have failed to reach the promised annual sum of $100 billion to support the countries that are most affected by climate change, according to the report. In 2009, during COP15, developed countries committed to mobilizing $100 billion a year for climate action in developing countries by 2020. In 2021, that sum was $90 billion, a 7.6% increase over the previous year, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an intergovernmental organization headquartered in Paris, France, with 38 member countries.

In the U.S., people with low income, people who live in historically redlined neighborhoods, and communities of color are more likely to live in areas where levels of air pollution are unhealthy, according to the U.S. brief portion of the Lancet Countdown report.

“Communities of color and low-income areas often face enormous and unjust burden of pollution because of fossil fuel industries,” Dr. Margot Brown, senior vice president of justice and equity at Environmental Defense Fund, said during the online Lancet briefing. “They are more likely to be located near them.”

While facing greater hazards from climate change, these communities have the fewest resources to recover from the harm, she said.

“Climate change is going to be a threat multiplier, meaning it will exacerbate the environmental injustice,” Brown said. “So, it is really imperative that we ensure that federal and state governments implement clean energy plant investments in an equitable and just way, opposing efforts that add to any additional pollution and overburden communities.”

3. Talk to emergency physicians, specialists, nurses and people at medical schools.

The medical community is increasingly aware of how climate change impacts patients, from older adults to outdoor workers to children and premature babies in neonatal intensive care units.

“We know that extreme heat and air pollution are associated with poor perinatal outcomes, including preterm birth and maternal hypertensive disorders,” said, Philipsborn of Emory University, who is a general pediatrician. “The subsequent burden of disease is immense.”

During the same briefing, Dr. Sumita Khatri, a pulmonologist, described how the burning of fossil fuels and climate change are the root of some of her patients’ breathing issues. For instance, one of her patients is a construction worker and his asthma has been worsened due to longer allergy seasons resulting from warmer temperatures, which in turn lead to higher pollen levels.

“People who work outdoors are at particular risk of heat-related respiratory symptoms and other heat-related illnesses,” Khatri said during the NEJM briefing. “The bottom line is this: Climate change is not a threat in some faraway land. It’s in our backyards.”

In 2022, heat exposure resulted in a loss of 490 billion potential labor hours globally, 42% more than the annual average from 1991 to 2000, according to the Lancet Countdown report. On average, each worker in the world lost 143 potential hours of work as a result of climate change.

There has also been a surge of interest in climate health education in medical schools during the past five years, Dr. Cecilia Sorensen, director of the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education and associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, said during the NEJM briefing.

“I’d say a large amount of this is being led by our medical students,” Sorensen said.

4. Ask local hospitals how they’re incorporating climate change into their plans.

Climate change increases pressure on health systems, which care for affected people.

Extreme weather events can disrupt health systems and hospitals, according to a 2022 report by The Commonwealth Fund. Health workers may also experience the physical and mental health effects of climate change more than the general population, because climate change not only disrupts their lives but also makes their jobs more challenging, and raises the risk of burnout, according to the report.

The Lancet Countdown includes policy briefs for several countries with data on the health impacts of climate change specific to each country.

The U.S. brief finds:

  • Adults over age 65 experienced a 138% increase in total exposure to heatwaves each year from 2013 to 2022 compared with 1986 to 2005, meaning each older adult, on average, was exposed to an additional 2.8 heatwave days per year as compared to the historical baseline.
  • Infants under 1 year were exposed to 61% more heatwaves, meaning that each infant, on average, was exposed to an additional 3.2 heatwave days per year from 2013 to 2022 compared with 1986 to 2005.
  • The transmission season for Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax — two parasites that cause malaria — lengthened by 39% and 34%, respectively, in U.S. lowland areas from 2013 to 2022 compared with 1951 to 1960.
  • The ability of Aedes aegypti — the mosquito that can carry the dengue virus — to transmit dengue had more than doubled from 2013 to 2022 compared with 1951 to 1960.

5. Highlight hopes and potential solutions.

Even though the Lancet Countdown report bears grim news, it provides morsels of hope.

Deaths from fossil fuel-derived air pollution have fallen by almost 16% since 2005. At the same time, global investment in clean energy grew 15% in 2022 to $1.6 trillion.

The report also outlines health benefits that could result from a transition to a zero-carbon future. Improved air quality could prevent many of the 1.9 million deaths each year that result from exposure to air pollution. Transition to low-carbon diets could prevent up to 12 million deaths annually from poor diets and reduce 57% of agricultural emissions from dairy and red meat production.

Covering this aspect of the Lancet report provides an opportunity to highlight climate solutions in your community. The Washington Post, for instance, has a dedicated section on climate solutions. NPR dedicated a week to covering climate solutions. And Covering Climate Now has a Climate Solutions Reporting Guide.

6. If national and local officials have introduced plans and legislation to combat climate change, ask advocates and residents if they’re seeing the impact.

During the Lancet Countdown online briefing, Admiral Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, listed the Biden Administration’s efforts to address climate change:

  • In August 2021, the Biden Administration established the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity to address the impact of climate change on the health of Americans.
  • In December 2021, President Biden issued an executive order setting requirements for federal agencies to reduce their carbon footprint and achieve net-zero emissions from buildings and campuses by 2045.
  • In spring 2022, the administration launched the White House-HHS Health Sector Climate Pledge, a voluntary commitment by the health sector to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. So far, 116 organizations have signed on.
  • Also, the Inflation Reduction Act has several opportunities for the health sector, including tax credits, grants and technical assistance programs, “making billions available for transformative clean energy building efficiency and infrastructure resilience projects that could really remake the face of the section,” Levine said.

During the Lancet online briefing, one of the featured speakers, Roishetta Sibley Ozane, founder, director and CEO of Vessel Project of Louisiana, an environmental justice organization, urged policymakers to have conversations with communities that are bearing the brunt of air pollution and climate change.

“When you talk about what the Biden administration has done, it sounds good on paper. It looks good on paper,” said Ozane, who lives in Southwest Louisiana. “My community smells like rotten eggs, mixed with Clorox. You’re gonna get a headache, you’re gonna feel sick. You’re not gonna want to stay here, but this is where we live every day. We don’t need any false solutions. We need real conversations with real impacted people.”

Additional reading

The fifth National Climate Assessment
U.S. Global Change Research Program, November 2023.

Sacrifice Zones: Mapping Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution
ProPublica, November 2021.

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