Climate change: Hotter temperatures could kill 2000 more a year in US

Henrietta Strickland
January 14, 2020

Global warming of 1.5 °C could result in an additional 1,603 deaths from injuries each year in the United States, an worldwide team of researchers reported yesterday in the journal Nature Medicine.

The team found that 1.5C of warming would bring an additional 1,600 deaths each year; 2C of warming would see around 2,100 more. The data predicts that there will be 1601 extra deaths in the USA each year due to injuries, with 84% of the fatalities being men.

Until now, most studies of the health effects of climate change have focused on deaths from insect-borne diseases, heart and respiratory conditions, and direct effects of heat. But less is known about how warm temperatures impact injuries. They chose these figures as the worldwide Paris Agreement on the climate, which the USA has started the process of withdrawing from, aims to keep average post-industrial global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The researchers mined 38 years' worth of USA government data on weather conditions and deaths from injuries in the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii).

These numbers were chosen because countries in the Paris Agreement are committed limiting the increase in temperatures to 2.7F (1.5C).

The models showed the increase in fatalities would be most likely to affect males between the ages 15 and 34, especially those living in California, Florida and Texas. But deaths from injuries currently make up about 10% of all fatalities around the world and the impact of global heating on this had been little studied until now. The largest proportional increase is projected for drowning, while the smallest proportional increases are projected for assault and suicide. "Of all male excess deaths, 92% would occur in those aged 15-64 years, who have higher rates of deaths from transport and suicide".

The latest research showed rising temperatures are likely to increase drowning and transport accidents because more people swim, drive and drink alcohol when the weather is warm.

Meanwhile, these increases would be partly offset by a decline in deaths from falls in middle-aged and elderly people during the winter months.

In addition, other recent studies have shown how driving behaviors deteriorate as temperatures rise, resulting in a greater number of accidents. The world is now on track for a 3-4C temperature rise, suggesting the increase in injury deaths could be even higher.

However, some of these connections are tentative and more research will be necessary to work out the cause and effect relationships.

Risks were also seen in deaths from suicide and assault due to warmer temperatures, but the changes in these risks were less significant.

"These new results show how much climate change can affect young people", said senior study author Majid Ezzati, professor at the Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics at Imperial College London, in a press release.

Injury deaths were expected to increase in all nations as temperatures rose, he said, although local factors would influence the extent of the increase - for example, the standard of road safety or level of gun control. "We need to respond to this threat with better preparedness in terms of emergency services, social support and health warnings".

One reason could be that, in warmer weather, more people spend time outdoors, which could lead to confrontations - and thus, deaths from violence.

In a commentary on the paper also published in the journalNature Medicine, a pair of scientists not involved in the study wrote that it is important to note that other variables of weather which are linked to injuries like rain, humidity, sunshine, and wind "may act in their own right while also interacting with temperature, although not necessarily in consistent or predictable fashions".

Image: Artwork by Banksy; photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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