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Two major reports say that climate change is hurting human health too

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two major reports out this week show just how starkly climate change is impacting people's health and personal lives. Alejandra Borunda from NPR's Climate Desk joins us now to talk through the highlights. Hey, Alejandra.

ALEJANDRA BORUNDA, BYLINE: Hey.

CHANG: So what are these two reports? Like, what are the major themes that they take a look at?

BORUNDA: So the National Climate Assessment for the U.S. came out earlier this week, and so did the Lancet Countdown, which is this global report that comes out every year. And they both really hammered home that climate change is hurting people physically and mentally.

MARY HAYDEN: Climate change is harming human health, and that is unequivocal.

BORUNDA: This is Mary Hayden. She was the lead author on the health chapter in the National Climate Assessment. She says the climate risks are not the same for everyone.

HAYDEN: This harms everybody, but certain communities are disproportionately affected.

BORUNDA: She's talking about poor people. That includes people in the Global South. We're talking about under-resourced communities in the U.S., including children. It's much worse for them already.

CHANG: Absolutely. And just remind us, Alejandra, like, what are some of the specific ways that climate change affects people's health?

BORUNDA: The most obvious is heat. This summer, for example, it was off-the-charts hot. Climate change, we know, is making heat waves hotter and last longer. And doctors - they know that, during heat waves, the number of heart attacks and strokes and all kinds of other health problems go way up.

CHANG: Yeah.

BORUNDA: But heat is definitely not the only health risk from climate change. Like, wildfire smoke, for example - that's another one. Or hurricanes, even - they cause flooding, and then mold can grow in people's houses. And diseases like Lyme - they're spreading because the insects that carry them are thriving farther north. And that's just physical health. There are impacts on mental health, too. PTSD after climate disasters and deep anxiety about the future - these are things that people are really struggling with right now. And here's the thing - the U.S. alone spends, like, $1 billion a year on climate-related health costs.

CHANG: Wow. So then what do scientists and health experts and academics say about the future? Like, are climate-related health risks only going to get worse?

BORUNDA: Yeah, definitely. In the U.S., for example, on average, there were two heat waves a year in the 1960s. Today, it's more than six.

CHANG: Wow.

BORUNDA: That's a huge added risk.

CHANG: Yeah.

BORUNDA: Renee Salas is one of the authors of The Lancet report. She says there's been an 88% increase in deaths related to heat in older adults just in the U.S. Salas, in her work as a doctor at Mass General Hospital in Boston, has seen these impacts firsthand.

RENEE SALAS: I have seen many different heat-related illnesses in the emergency department, but one that really has resonated with me is a construction worker who came in with deadly heatstroke while working two different construction jobs to support his young family.

BORUNDA: So climate change is hurting people who work outside. It also hurts people who live in historically redlined neighborhoods, where there's less tree shade, so it can be 15 degrees hotter than just a few blocks away. People living there - they're already living in the climate change future.

CHANG: Totally. So then, I mean, what can we do to better protect ourselves and the people we care about?

BORUNDA: Yeah, it's really a two-pronged approach. The Lancet authors say step one is to get at the root cause of climate change, which is reducing fossil fuel use immediately. And step two - countries need to deal with the problems climate change has already created. That's actions like passing protections for people who work outdoors in extreme heat or making hospitals more resilient to floods or other climate disasters.

CHANG: That is NPR's Alejandra Borunda. She covers climate and health for NPR. Thank you so much, Alejandra.

BORUNDA: Thank you so much.

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Alejandra Borunda