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Burning Embers: Synthesis of the Health Risks of Climate Change

New paper in Environmental Research co-authored by leaders from the Center for Health and the Global Environment

Policymakers want to know the pace, magnitude, and pattern of possible climate change risks for population health and health systems, to inform prioritization of investments to prepare for and manage the challenges of a changing climate. There is growing evidence that climate change is already causing illnesses and deaths from high ambient temperature, exposure to high levels of ozone, dengue fever, and Lyme disease.

Additional climate change is projected to increase for heat-related morbidity and mortality, ozone-related mortality, dengue and Lyme disease from undetectable to severe risks as the planet continues to warm, according to new research published by the Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHanGE) at the University of Washington and its collaborators.

Burning Embers: Synthesis of the Health Risks of Climate Change” was published March 30, 2021, in Environmental Research Letters. Authors include Kristie L. Ebi, and Dr. Jeremy Hess, with partners from the Public Health Agency of Canada, University of Haifa, University of Waterloo, the World Health Organization and the University of Auckland.

Since 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports have included a summary of how risks in human and natural systems could change with additional warming above pre-industrial levels, generally accompanied by a figure called the “burning embers.” This is the first effort to develop a similar figure to visualize selected risks of climate change on health under different scenarios.

The research found that recent climate change is likely beginning to affect the burden of West Nile fever. A detectable impact of climate change on malaria is not yet apparent but is expected to occur with additional warming. The paper also assessed that the extent and pace of adaptation could alter the timing and severity of increasing risks for each climate-sensitive health outcome as global mean surface temperature increases above pre-industrial levels.

The authors conducted an extensive global literature review to construct the burning embers figure based on projected risk to health outcomes under 1.5C, 2C and >2C degrees of warming, under three adaptation scenarios. The burning embers figure may be useful to policymakers, ministries of health and other decision-makers to raise awareness of health impacts from climate risks and expand their adaptation efforts to protect the health and environment of their populations.