A few years into paying attention to major climate reports, I’ve learned to brace myself for the bad news with small measures of comfort. I settled in to read this year’s 2022 Lancet Countdown report—an annual report on climate change and health from the world’s leading public health experts—with a cup of pumpkin spice tea and a cozy blanket in my lap. Tea and blankets don’t make the bad news better, but they soften the blow enough to allow me to keep reading, even when the news makes me want to crawl into a hole and binge-watch Netflix for several weeks.
2022 marks the seventh year of the Lancet Countdown report. This year, the report’s authors pull no punches in naming that our collective addiction to fossil fuels is driving the climate crisis, and that governments and companies are failing to act with the urgency and scale needed to prevent locking in devastating levels of climate warming.
In a webinar announcing the launch of the report, Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton laid bare the dilemma and challenge before us: “We need a complete reconstruction of civilization within a generation.”
(I took an extra sip of tea after hearing that one.)
This year’s Lancet Countdown report contains multiple key findings, illustrated with helpful graphics in this interactive report. Not just a litany of dire predictions for the future, the findings underscore the climate threats we’re facing now:
- Amplified food insecurity: In 2020, an increase in extreme heat days accounted for an estimated 98 million more people reporting moderate to severe food insecurity than the average in 1981–2010.
- Increased exposure to extreme heat: People from vulnerable age groups—over 65 and under 1 year old—were exposed to 3.7 billion more extreme heat days in 2021 than annually in 1986–2005.
- Increased labor hours and potential income lost due to heat: In 2021, heat exposure accounted for 470 billion potential labor hours lost around the world, and potential income losses of $69 billion.
- More land affected by drought: Between 2012 and 2021, an average of 29% more global land area was affected by extreme drought for at least one month a year.
- More people affected by wildfire risk: Between 2018 and 2021, there was a 61% increase in human exposure to days with very or extremely high fire danger, compared to 2001–2004.
- Increasingly frequent life-threatening extreme weather events.
- Weather conditions becoming more suitable for the spread of infectious diseases.
- Households are still dependent on dirty, climate-warming fuels, due to delays in uptake and inequitable access to clean energies. This makes households especially vulnerable to rising fossil fuel prices, indoor air pollution, and the health harms of energy poverty, which is when households can’t afford to meet their energy needs.
- Weakened health systems: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly weakened health systems, such as hospital systems, and this has reduced the funds available for climate action in many places. Health systems are also increasingly being disrupted by extreme weather and supply chain issues.
Despite these clear harms to human health, the Countdown authors assert, governments and companies continue to prioritize fossil fuels over our health and well-being. In many countries, including the United States, budgets for fossil fuel subsidies are comparable to or even exceed their total health budgets. “As [oil companies] cash record profits,” the report states, “the failure to reprioritize funding and invest in a healthy future becomes evident.”
Notwithstanding many pages of discouraging findings, the Countdown report is clear that there are glimmers of hope—we’ve made tremendous collective progress on the amount of energy generated from renewable sources, and there is more public conversation about the health impacts of climate change than ever.
And perhaps most importantly, there is still time to act. “In this pivotal moment,” the authors write, “a health-centered response to the current crises would still provide the opportunity for a low-carbon, resilient future, which not only avoids the health harms of accelerated climate change, but also delivers improved health and wellbeing through the associated co-benefits of climate action.”
What would a health-centered response to climate change look like then?
According to the Countdown, it would include rapidly shifting away from fossil fuels and accelerating a just transition to clean energy sources. It would include improving air quality to help mitigate the profound health impacts of air pollution; enhancing low-carbon travel and improving urban green spaces to promote physical activity and boost mental health; and accelerating the transition to plant-rich diets, which would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from red meat and milk production, help prevent up to 11.5 million diet-related deaths per year, and reduce the burden of diseases that spread from animals to humans.
Completely reconstructing civilization within a generation may be a herculean task—but it could come with profound benefits for human health.
My climate anxiety and grief spike every time I read one of these reports—hearing ominous climate news can take a harsh toll on our mental health. But I’ve made a practice out of reminding myself that these feelings of climate distress are a sign of how much I care about what’s at stake. I’ve also made a practice of challenging myself to intentionally imagine what versions of the future are still possible every time I hear bad climate news: to grieve what’s no longer possible, but also to refuse to let that be the end of the story.
Questions I’m starting with, reflecting on this year’s Lancet Countdown report: How might we honor values of justice, equity, and inclusion as we try to remake the world within a generation? How might we live, act, work, love, and parent if we were to get this reconstruction right?
And how might you and I contribute to the version of the future we want today?