Last month, a major new climate and health report came out. It’s not only a great new resource on the ways climate change is impacting people’s health but it also shows that action to reduce pollution can make a real difference.
The 8th Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, along with the U.S.-focused materials released with it, is the latest in a series of annual reports tracking the impacts of climate change on health, both in the U.S. and around the world. The new report revealed the significant dangers ahead if bold action is not taken to curb fossil fuel use. Despite the obstacles to transitioning to clean, renewable energy sources, there is still room for hope. The report also highlights critical strategies and policies needed to protect the health of current and future generations.
How the Climate Crisis Is Increasingly Harming Health and Putting Lives at Risk
Several key findings stood out in this year’s report, particularly related to extreme heat. Over the past two decades, the average number of days that people experienced health-threatening heat worldwide has quickly grown. Notably, heat-related deaths of people over the age of 65 increased by 85% between 2013-22, in comparison to 1990-2000. This is much higher than the expected 38% increase if temperatures hadn’t changed. This year’s report also made projections about the threat higher temperatures could pose in the coming decades. Earth’s climate has warmed by roughly 1.2°C since the preindustrial times of the mid-to-late 1800s. If the average temperature rise reaches 2°C above preindustrial levels as we approach midcentury, heat-related deaths could increase by 370%.
On top of this, the changing climate is causing more intense and frequent extreme weather and weather-related events such as droughts, floods, storms and wildfires. Additionally, it is making conditions more suitable for the transmission of dangerous infectious diseases, like West Nile virus. As extreme weather events and the health risks from climate change grow, so do the cost of critically needed adaptation efforts.
How Air Pollution and Climate Change Go Hand in Hand
This year’s report highlights an issue at the heart of the climate crisis – the continued and expanded use of fossil fuels. The burning of these fuels, such as oil, gas and coal, leads to the emission of greenhouse gas emissions, which are primarily driving climate change. What’s more, air pollutants that stem from fossil fuel combustion, like fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone pollution, are known to cause and worsen numerous health issues, including in the lungs. Particulate matter from fossil fuel combustion is also linked to early death.
It is clear that reducing fossil fuel combustion cuts climate pollution and air pollution at the same time. Unfortunately, despite the progress the country has made in the last year with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the U.S. remains a leading contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, too many people still breathe unhealthy levels of particulate matter.
Only quick and aggressive change can help stave off the worst health consequences of climate change and secure cleaner air for everyone. One major recommendation outlined in the report’s U.S. brief is taking action to reduce air pollution, while simultaneously decreasing the health risks from fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To do this, the brief suggests “strengthening clean air protections for all air pollutants, most critically, establishing more stringent rules for particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone levels in line with the best available evidence on health harms.”
This recommended action is incredibly timely because EPA is currently getting ready to finalize its proposal to update and strengthen the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particulate matter. Given that exposure to particle pollution can cause heart attacks, stroke, lung cancer and even premature death, having stronger rules in place is a key priority for the American Lung Association.
How to Take Action for Stronger Particle Pollution Standards
As we shared in a recent Each Breath Blog, stronger standards for particle pollution would have a massive impact on health. From EPA’s own estimates, a much tighter standard for year-round particle pollution could result in the avoidance of 9,200 premature deaths per year, 580,000 lost workdays per year, and $95 billion in health benefits in 2032.
Fortunately, there is still time to act and call on the Biden administration to strengthen these standards and save lives. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to sign our petition urging EPA to finalize stronger limits on this dangerous pollutant and get a suite of other clean air protections across the finish line.
Blog last updated: December 19, 2023