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Health experts say world needs to end fossil fuel use as new report finds a rise in climate-related mortality

A health worker refreshes a resident at a retirement home in Isturitz, France, in June 2022 during a deadly heatwave./Bob Edme/AP/FILE

The climate crisis is carrying a mounting health toll that is set to put even more lives at risk without bold action to phase out planet-warming fossil fuels, a new report from more than 100 scientists and health practitioners found.

The annual Lancet Countdown report, released Tuesday, found that delaying climate action will lead to a nearly five-fold increase in heat-related deaths by 2050, underscoring that the health of humans around the world is “at the mercy of fossil fuels.”

Despite these growing health hazards and the costs of adapting to climate change soaring, authors say governments, banks and companies are still allowing the use of fossil fuels to expand and harm human health.

“We’re seeing that we’re moving in the opposite direction to where we should be going with the expansion of private companies’ oil and gas production plans, financing going toward the fossil fuel sector, and all in all a promotion of oil and gas burning that is threatening our survival around the world,” Marina Romanello, Lancet Countdown’s executive director and lead author.

“Mortality is just the tip of the iceberg of the enormous burden that comes with heat,” she added.

If the world continues down this fossil fuel-dependent path, Romanello stressed that the cascading consequences could be catastrophic not only for human health but also the economy.

The planet has already warmed roughly 1.2 degrees Celsius since the pre-industrial era in the late 1800s. When the world is 2 degrees warmer, the report found countries will start to see a 50% increase in labor capacity loss because of exposure to extreme heat, which could lead to enormous economic losses and losses to livelihoods and wellbeing.

More than half a billion more people in the world will suffer food insecurity by mid-century, the report found, if the planet warms 2 degrees.

“The underlying message is that we need to pursue efforts urgently to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees, but that every fraction of a degree of temperature increase matters,” Romanello said.

But even today with a 1.2-degree increase, large parts of the globe have already witnessed a sinister cocktail of devastating impacts.

During Europe’s hottest summer on record in 2022, nearly 62,000 people have died of heat-related causes. That year, every person around the world on average was exposed to 86 days of health-threatening, scorching temperatures, 60% of which were twice as likely to happen by human-caused climate change, according to the report.

That trend persisted — if not, worsened — this summer, with vast swaths of the world experiencing firsthand how dangerous extreme heat can be. In the US, officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, reported that more than 579 people have died of heat-related illness this year, with over 50 deaths still under investigation, making 2023 the deadliest year for heat deaths since the county began tracking them in 2006.

Heat-related fatalities have risen dramatically in the US in recent years. In 2022, more than 1,700 deaths were due to heat-related causes, according to an analysis of data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — more than doubling over the past five years. And that data is likely an underestimate, experts say, because extreme heat exposure isn’t always well documented.

An outdoor worker tries to stay hydrated as he operates a roller in the blazing hot sun in Santa Rosa County, Florida, on August 4./Gregg Pachkowski/USA Today Network

Rachel Licker, principal climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that managing the health risks of climate change isn’t a new experience for some, but for many, it was a “wakeup call to the new realities” the world will be facing if it continues to burn more fossil fuels.

“This new report brings these realities into focus, including the sad reality that the health risks of climate change are most serious for those who are already most vulnerable,” Licker, who is not involved with the study, told CNN. “It’s also maddening to look forward and see us continuing on this path when the risks are so clear, as laid out in the latest Lancet report.”

Tuesday’s analysis found that many of these heat-related deaths could have been prevented if the planet hadn’t warmed as much as it did, particularly for the elderly, babies and the most vulnerable communities.

“For the first time this year, we have done an analysis to see what would have happened if temperatures hadn’t changed,” Romanello said. “And what this is showing us is that if temperatures hadn’t changed from the 90s, we would have seen less than a half this increase in heat-related mortality just by demographic changes.”

The world is rapidly approaching irreversible harm, the authors warn. And the only way to prevent that from escalating is to swiftly transition the global economy to net-zero by halting the burning of fossil fuels — not increasing them.

The report comes just weeks before the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, where world leaders will discuss how to protect public health amid a changing climate for the first time since the annual summit began more than two decades ago. Countries will also engage in critical negotiations on whether or not to phase out fossil fuels in the coming years.

“The expansion of oil and gas is undermining our health, our being, and our collective future,” Romanello said. “We absolutely need to call for fossil fuel phase-out. This will be quite a sticking point at this COP, and the health argument is what matters the most.”

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