Doctors are taking aim at the fossil fuels industry, placing blame for the world’s most dire health problems on the companies that continue to seek oil and gas profits even as climate change worsens heat waves, intensifies flooding and roils people’s mental health.
“The burning of fossil fuels is creating a health crisis that I can’t fix by the time I see patients in my emergency department,” said Dr. Renee Salas, summarizing the findings of a report published Tuesday in The Lancet. “Fossil fuel companies are making record profits while my patients suffer from their downstream health harms.”
Salas, an emergency medical physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, is one of nearly 100 authors who contributed to the prestigious medical journal’s annual report on climate change and health.
The report accuses fossil fuel purveyors — and the governments that subsidize them — of subverting “efforts to deliver a low carbon, healthy, liveable future” and demands that world leaders pursue a health-centered approach to solving the climate crisis.
The report’s theme reflects a growing frustration and helplessness expressed by medical professionals left to deal with the impacts of climate change as world leaders struggle to address the root cause.
“The report highlights the harm the fossil fuel industry has really wreaked in creating this crisis,” said Dr. Jerry Abraham, the director and chief vaccinologist at Kedren Community Health Center in Los Angeles, who was not involved in writing the report. “Foe is a harsh word, but it has to be used.”
As in previous reports, the 2022 Lancet Countdown paints a grim picture of how climate change is threatening people’s health and the care systems that are supposed to help manage it, calling its latest findings the “direst” yet. This year’s report leaves little ambiguity about who the doctors view as responsible for the harms and stresses they feel in clinics.
The annual report catalogs the health impacts of change worldwide and a separate policy brief outlines impacts in the U.S.
According to these reports:
- Heat-related deaths worldwide have increased by about 68% since the beginning of the millennium, according to data comparing 2000-04 to 2017-21, when the issue was made worse by Covid-19. Extreme heat was linked to 98 million cases of hunger worldwide. In the U.S., heat-related deaths for people over age 65 are estimated to have increased by about 74% during that same time period.
- Tiny particles released into the air as pollution during fossil fuel use were responsible for 1.2 million deaths in 2020. About 11,840 U.S. deaths were attributable to particulate air pollution, according to Salas.
- Changes in temperature, precipitation and population since the 1950s have increased the transmissibility of diseases spread by mosquitoes, with dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika all up by roughly 12%. In the U.S., the transmissibility of dengue fever was about 64% higher.
- Climate change is taking a toll on mental health. “There’s strong evidence that climate change is associated with more depression, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety,” said Natasha K. DeJarnett, a lead author of the U.S. policy brief and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Louisville.
There are some hopeful signs. The report notes growth in renewable energy investment, increasing media coverage of climate change and growing engagement from government leaders on health-centered climate policies. But the report warns that inequities could weaken progress.
Abraham, who serves patients in South Los Angeles, said he sees the effects associated with climate change in his clinic regularly — including children suffering from asthma, older patients dealing with heat-related health issues and others coming down with pollution-linked diseases like cancer.
He worries that inequities will grow and that some people will be left behind as the U.S. invests in electrification and decarbonization.
“My patients in South L.A. — Black and brown L.A. — they’re going to be some of the most vulnerable. Many don’t have air conditioning and we’re dealing with rising temperatures and heat waves,” Abraham said, adding that the price of healthy food is rising and so are transportation costs. “Imagine having all this investment in electricity, but our patients have to get their beat-up Chevy to the gas station and contribute to the climate crisis to go and pick our food.”
On a broader scale, the report warns that wealthy countries have fallen behind on helping the poorest countries, which often are among the most at risk for health problems because of climate change and who have the least responsibility for creating the problem.
The Lancet Countdown is published each year before the annual U.N. conference on climate change, called COP27 this year and scheduled to be held in Egypt in early November.
After flooding left one-third of Pakistan underwater and killed thousands, the nation is among those calling for climate reparations — a topic sure to surface during the global climate talks.
“It’s going to be a big issue at COP — loss and damages,” said Carol Devine, who works on climate issues for Doctors Without Borders.
Devine said that if wealthy countries do not follow through on previous commitments and add funding to bolster health systems in poorer countries to help them adapt to climate change, “humanitarian organizations are going to be overwhelmed.”
The health care industry also has a responsibility to eliminate its own contributions to climate change, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association. Health care organizations are responsible for about 5.2% of global emissions and about 8% in the U.S., according to the Lancet reports.
“We can begin to work a lot more aggressively with revitalizing our hospitals and getting them off the use of fossil fuels,” Benjamin said.