Climate change is affecting human health with increasing extremes of heat, pollution, food and water insecurity, changing patterns of infectious diseases and more. The last five years have been the hottest on record, and the world is not on course to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement. 

Such warnings accompanied the Dec. 3 release of the latest report from the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change and its companion “Policy Brief for the United States of America,” which is co-published with APHA. The U.S. launch event explored not only climate change and the pandemic, but also the structural racism that has made people of color more vulnerable to the health effects of both.

“While we may all be in this together, not all of us are affected equally,” said speaker Ashish Jha, MD, MPH, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

As a tool to address climate, health and equity, the 2020 Lancet Countdown report is a “critical intervention,” added Jacqueline Patterson, MPH, MSW, senior director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP, in her keynote remarks.

More than 100 experts from nearly three-dozen academic institutions and UN agencies around the world came together to analyze over 40 indicators for the 2020 countdown report. The U.S. policy brief, developed in partnership with APHA and a working group of experts in the climate and health field, helps draw out its most nationally relevant findings.

Among the brief’s many recommendations include eliminating U.S. fossil fuel subsidies, increasing access to healthy transportation options, strengthening public health systems and investing in COVID-19 recovery.

To inspire climate action, brief co-author Renee Salas, MD, MPH, MS, suggested framing the climate crisis as the health emergency it is, educating through trusted messengers like health care providers, creating a sense of optimism that we can meet the challenge and making climate change relatable using the personal stories of those affected.

“Numbers numb, but stories stick,” said Salas, a fellow at the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Globally, nearly every nation on Earth has signed the Paris climate agreement to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming and harm human health. Unfortunately, the Trump administration officially withdrew the U.S. — the world’s second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases — from the agreement in November.

The withdrawal “only serves to relinquish U.S. leadership on climate change and ignores the significant risks of a go-it-alone approach to a global threat,” said Georges Benjamin, MD, APHA’s executive director in a statement.

However, there are promising signs that the incoming administration will reverse course and take strong action on the converging crises of climate change, COVID-19 and racism. It’s time to “build back healthy with equity and justice,” Benjamin said. 

Read the 2020 Lancet Countdown report and U.S. policy brief, and watch a recording of the U.S. launch event to learn more.