Heatwaves compound the effects of pandemic and war
02 November 2022
It is easy to forget that we have a much bigger and ongoing challenge in the form of climate change. This is particularly true during current global challenges - Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and the cost-of-living, food, and energy crises. But climate change not only directly impacts human health but compounds the effects of other global events.
The University of Reading has a long-standing involvement in the Lancet Countdown. This international collaboration monitors the health impacts from climate change, over time, and tracks how things are changing, as the planet becomes warmer.
This year’s report covers the whole of 2021 and focuses on direct links between human health and our ongoing reliance on fossil fuels. The University’s involvement is around the hazards we experience, including extremely hot weather.
In 2021, populations across the world saw their health increasingly affected by climate change, through exacerbated food insecurity, extreme heat exposure, drought and wildfires; a heightened risk of infectious disease outbreaks, and an increasing number of life-threatening extreme weather events. These have been concurrent to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and represent the background on which the current cost-of-living crisis and geopolitical conflict is placed.
Dr Claudia Di Napoli, a research fellow at the University of Reading, contributed to the Lancet Countdown project. She said: “When the weather gets extremely hot, the hours in the day where it is safe to do strenuous exercise or work outdoors, and our mental and emotional wellbeing, among other factors, are affected. This is one area where we see that climate change is having a significant impact on health.”
Heat exposure led to 470 billion potential labour hours lost globally in 2021, with income losses equivalent to substantial proportions of countries’ GDP (5.6% in the case of low Human Development Index countries), according to the Lancet Countdown. Lost hours, on this scale, worsens the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, and creates a socioeconomic condition that is less conducive to good health.
Mental wellbeing is suffering too. Research from the project shows that during the Pacific Northwest heatwave, in 2021, as well as during the extreme rainfall events in western Europe in the same summer, people were seen to express more negative sentiment, as compared to a 2015-2020 baseline.
The study also states that 29% more land, across the world, was affected by extreme drought annually in 2012–21 than in 1951–1960. Drought increases the risk of both water and food insecurity.
The compounding of all these health crises is stressing the demand for care from health systems that are still grappling with effects of the global pandemic.
While the proportion of all extreme climate-related events that were deadly has increased since 1980, the average lethality per climate-related disaster has decreased. Dr Di Napoli said: “This improvement is negatively associated with healthcare spending, suggesting it would be possible to increase coping capacity through health system strengthening.”