For the past six years, the medical journal the Lancet has published its annual Countdown report, a comprehensive analysis of the preceding year’s scientific literature on climate change and public health. Last year, the journal’s report said that rising temperatures and emissions threaten to undo 50 years of public health gains from interventions like banning trans fats and restricting cigarette smoking. This year’s major takeaways are no less grim.
The Lancet tracked 44 health indicators that are directly linked to climate change for this year’s report. Three of those indicators — mental wellbeing, the influence of heat on safe physical activity, and pollution related to the consumption of goods and services — are new this year. The report found that the world’s senior citizens collectively experienced 3.1 billion more days of heatwave exposure in 2020 than average, particularly in China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and the United States. (The annual averages used in the report are based on data collected between 1986 and 2005.) Children under 1 year old experienced 626 million more heatwave days than average.
One of the Countdown report’s starkest takeaways is that during any given month in 2020, 19 percent of the land surface of the entire planet was affected by extreme drought. Drought and heat combined are putting the world’s major staple crops — corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice — at risk, which means food insecurity will continue to rise in the absence of global leadership on climate change.
The report’s authors note that the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic was a golden opportunity for nations to invest in public health by using recovery dollars to transition away from fossil fuels and create new climate, health, and equity programs. But world leaders in most countries didn’t take advantage of it.