Does it feel like the heat is killing you this summer? Next year, that might be more than just a figure of speech. Two major new studies have documented how a warming world is creating a toxic new normal of heat-related death and disease in our daily lives.
The Columbia University Earth Institute has analyzed patterns of deaths caused by climate change in the urban environment and calculates that the average New Yorker’s grandchildren will be 50 times more likely to die of a heat-related illness than they are. The study finds that, under the business-as-usual climate-change scenario, “as many as 3,331 people a year could be dying from the heat during New York City summers by 2080,” spiking from an estimated annual average of 638 heat-related deaths in the region from 2000 to 2006.
The study is unique in that it accounts for the estimated future demographic changes, showing that overall population growth and a burgeoning aging population will deepen climate-related health risks and aggravate their related social inequalities.
A separate study based on historical mortality trends, published by University of Hawaii researchers in Nature Climate Change, estimates that, globally, the climate crisis will drastically expand the number of people exposed to a killer-heat threshold: The proportion of the population around the world exposed to at least 20 extremely hot days per year would rise from the current 30 percent to 74 percent by 2100. Reducing carbon emissions might help, but the exposure rate would still likely increase to about 48 percent.
As governments around the world move to revamp their social infrastructure to mitigate the threats of climate change, a growing body of research reveals an intricate correlation between climate change and public-health problems, often in the form of long-term disease crises. Although the public is more prone to panic over disasters like hurricanes and flooding, steadily intensifying heat waves and infections are slowly killing more of us.
For example, heat waves in Chicago and Europe in recent years have been linked to thousands of premature deaths. As summers get hotter, even in the “developed” world climate change will fuel problems like asthma, virus outbreaks, and elevated allergen exposure. On the local level, communities are facing the negative-feedback loop of inadequate health-care access and the impoverishment of families suffering from weather-driven chronic conditions.