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Extreme Heat Killed Over 70,000 In Europe Last Year, Study Finds. This Year Is On Track To Be Even Worse

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Topline

Record heat across Europe last summer was responsible for more than 70,000 deaths, according to research published in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe, a figure that captures only a fraction of health impacts of human-driven climate change, and is already poised to be surpassed this year after blistering temperatures smashed records around the world.

Key Facts

An estimated 70,066 people died due to excessive heat across Europe last summer, according to research led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal).

The figure marks a more than 10% increase from the group’s earlier estimates of around 62,000 deaths due to the extreme heat published July in Nature Medicine.

The researchers, who analyzed years of data across 147 regions in Europe to assess cold and heat-related mortality, said the disparity arose from the use of aggregate data, for example where data is grouped on a weekly or monthly basis as opposed to every day.

While aggregated data can be useful in the short term—it is often available quicker as institutions often make aggregated data available in real time—an analysis of annual figures from 1998 to 2004 showed weekly models underestimated the number of heat-related deaths and early or untimely deaths by around 9% and 22%, respectively.

Key Background

The Earth’s last eight years have been the hottest on record. This year is on track to be the warmest yet and the years after are expected to be warmer still. While part of this is due to natural variations caused by the El Niño climate event, which warms surface waters in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, evidence overwhelmingly shows human activity is heating the planet. Experts warn that such activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions from sectors like agriculture, are pushing humanity toward a climate tipping point that could result in catastrophic and permanent change to our environment. Swift and drastic action to reduce emissions can help mitigate the worst of the expected damage but not avoid it entirely. Extreme weather events like droughts, fires, flooding, cold snaps, heat waves and major storms are all expected to intensify and multiply as this happens, with many having already reached record levels for damage and mortality in recent years.

Tangent

While mortality is a key figure when assessing the consequences of climate change and increasingly hot weather, there is a lot this data does not capture. Our health is profoundly intertwined with the climate and our environment and climate change is set to have significant negative impacts on health and well-being. Climate stressors will amplify already significant problems regarding the availability of adequate food and water around the world—these problems already affect billions of people—and heighten the risks of foodborne and waterborne disease. Infectious diseases like malaria, yellow fever, Zika and dengue fever are at risk of spreading into new parts of the world as warming climate makes many areas, including large parts of the U.S., more hospitable to the mosquitoes that carry them. The destruction of vital habitats will make spillover events for viral threats like coronaviruses, Ebola, Marburg and Nipah—as well as an unknown “Disease X”—more likely. Air pollution is linked to a litany of health problems like an increased risk for heart disease and cancer, mental health problems and increased risks of catching infectious disease. There is increasing evidence that climate change is exerting a major influence on mental health as well. Major weather events are exposing more people to traumatic experiences that can cause distress and raise the risks of conditions like PTSD, depression and substance use disorders, for example, and there are increasing reports of “climate anxiety” among children and younger people over the nature of the climate crisis. Even higher ambient temperatures could be bad for our mental well-being, with higher temperatures linked to increases in suicide and suicidal behavior and higher levels of hospital attendance or admission for mental illness.

Further Reading

Planting More Trees In Cities Could Slash Summer Heat Deaths, Study Finds (Forbes)

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