Adult taking temperature of child

Climate change has medical experts worried about our health, according to a recent report from the Lancet Countdown, an interdisciplinary group of 34 academic institutions and United Nations agencies. Authors include climate scientists, doctors, economists, and other experts.

Heat and air pollution are some of the worst offenders, according to the report. Rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be the only way to lower health risks in the long run.

The report issued results for countries across the world, and it gives the United States a dismal diagnosis: People will face higher exposure risk to Zika virus from longer mosquito seasons and a widening habitat; they’ll have an elevated risk of diarrheal illnesses and water contamination from worsening floods, and they’ll witness disasters that could cause anxiety and post-traumatic stress. These are just a few examples of the wide-ranging consequences to health from climate change.

Here are four major takeaways from the report for public health in the United States:

1. Worker productivity is dropping because of soaring temperatures. Hotter days are only growing more frequent: Since the turn of the century, we’ve experienced 18 of 19 of the hottest years on record. Scorching temperatures are now limiting the number of hours people can work outside in agriculture and industry. Last year alone, the United States lost 64.7 million potential labor hours from extreme heat. Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana are some of the U.S. states most at risk of losing productivity hours and have some of the highest rates of poverty.

2. Older adults are more and more at risk from heat waves. By 2030, all members of the baby boomer generation will be over the age of 65. This aging population will be more at risk of falling sick or dying from increased temperatures because they may lack the ability to seek shelter from the heat or have preexisting health issues that heat could exacerbate. Heat zaps our ability to think, leads to dehydration and complications for people on certain medications, and in the most severe cases can cause heatstroke and heart failure. Heat wave exposures have been increasing in recent years and—like many other health effects from climate change—hurt communities that are already vulnerable.

3. Soot and small particles from burning coal and oil are killing people. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is causing thousands of premature deaths in the United States every year. Burning fossil fuels releases fine particles (smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) that can lead to a whole host of health problems, including asthma and birth complications. Black and Latinx people are hit harder by air pollution compared with the general population, despite contributing the least to the problem. In 2016, 64,200 people died prematurely in the United States from air pollution.

4. Children will face a lifetime of health risks from climate change. Children born today will face far greater negative impacts on their health than those of earlier generations, and children of color will be the most affected. From birth complications in the womb to heat-related illness in infancy and young adulthood, children will face health impacts at each stage of development that can affect their entire lives. As the authors write in the report, “without significant intervention, this new era [of climate change] will come to define the health of an entire generation.”

Paths Forward

Limiting carbon emissions will be crucial to curtailing inequality and reducing future health care costs. Cutting emissions can be cost-effective: In the Rust Belt, health care cost savings from addressing carbon emissions would override the costs of switching to renewable energy by 34%.

The United States has a way to go to meet emissions cutbacks. Last year, the country’s carbon dioxide emissions rose by more than 3%. But some states have already begun to take action: Ten states and the District of Columbia rolled out plans for 100% clean or renewable electricity, and even more have enacted low-emissions standards for vehicles.

The report was published last week.

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), News Writing and Production Fellow


Duncombe, J. (2019), Climate change will make us sicker and lose work hours, Eos, 100, Published on 18 November 2019.

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