Climate Change Threatens Health, Doctors Warn : Shots - Health News Heat waves, air pollution and extreme weather are making people sick and, increasingly, killing people. A key report by global physicians says fossil fuels are to blame.

'We Don't Have To Live This Way': Doctors Call For Climate Action

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We - you, me, all of us - have got to stop burning fossil fuels. That's the message from the United Nations secretary-general, Antonio Guterres.


ANTONIO GUTERRES: Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Rebecca Hersher explains that a new U.N. report finds that the pandemic had basically no effect - no effect - on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The last 10 years were the hottest ever recorded. In 2020, there were deadly heat waves around the world, the new U.N. analysis finds. Widespread ocean heat waves killed fish, disrupted currents and melted ice; there were record-breaking wildfires and hurricanes, and emissions of greenhouse gases are still rising - all of which puts humans in danger, Guterres said in his speech on Wednesday.


GUTERRES: Air and water pollution are killing 9 million people annually, more than six times the current toll of the pandemic.

HERSHER: That message is emphatically backed up by the most comprehensive annual report on how climate change affects human health, which was published later the same day in the medical journal The Lancet. The authors found that in the last 20 years, there's been a more than 50% increase in heat-related deaths for people over 65. In the U.S., that meant nearly 20,000 older people dying in 2019 alone.

Dr. Renee Salas is an emergency room physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and one of the authors of the U.S. section of the new report.

RENEE SALAS: Climate change and air pollution have the same root cause - the burning of fossil fuels.

HERSHER: She and her co-authors say the medical evidence is clear - humans must stop burning oil, gas and coal.

SALAS: We have to stop investing in what is a thing of the past and is actually subsidizing health harms.

HERSHER: Salas and her co-authors also call out commercial agriculture operations. The tiny bits of dust released by large-scale farms mix with pollution from power plants and cars and trucks and makes dangerous soot. That soot was responsible for upwards of 25,000 premature deaths in the U.S. alone last year, the new report finds. Poor people and people of color are much more likely to live in places with polluted air or extreme heat.

Georges Benjamin leads the American Public Health Association.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: Climate change is an excellent example of severe inequity.

HERSHER: He says the new findings should be a wake-up call as Congress considers how to rebuild the U.S. economy in the wake of the pandemic. Investing in better housing and cleaner transportation would also protect the health of vulnerable people.

The new report also describes how climate change threatens hospitals themselves. Of 800 cities worldwide surveyed by researchers, two-thirds of them said they expect global warming to significantly compromise their public health infrastructure. That could include rolling blackouts during heat waves, damage from flooding or hurricanes, or simply too many sick or injured people. That hit home for Salas, who has spent the pandemic in an emergency room.

SALAS: It's been a tough year for all of us on the front lines in emergency departments.

HERSHER: She says it's been excruciating to see what she calls cascading failures in the U.S. health system and to know that climate change will drive more disasters in the future.

SALAS: Our nation is not adequately prepared for global-scale health challenges, including climate change.

HERSHER: Climate-driven weather disasters in the U.S. caused upwards of $20 billion in damage in 2020 alone.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

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