News, Science & Research

Study projects climate change to increase heat-related deaths

Potential increase in heat-related deaths indicate public health concern with climate change

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Patillo_heat_Laura-Felenstein

It’s easy to conceptualize climate change as distant environmental shifts in the future. But a recent study led by University researchers, along with others, showed U.S. mortality rates will increase in coming decades as result of climate change.

The study examined the relationship between temperature and deaths in 10 large metropolitan areas in the United States, said Antonio Gasparinni, associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who did much of the statistical work for the team. The researchers confirmed that as temperatures rise, heat-related deaths, like those from heatstroke, increase, while cold-related deaths, like those from hypothermia, decrease. Next, they decided to tackle the question of whether net deaths would increase or decrease overall.

In eight of the 10 metropolitan areas, researchers found that an increase in heat-related deaths would be larger than the decrease in cold-related deaths, leaving a net increase in mortalities.

After estimating the statistical curve of heat-based mortalities among the 10 cities based on historical data, the team obtained several projections for the future, Gasparinni said. These projections were based on various potential emissions scenarios, each of which fueled climate change to a different degree. Two main scenarios were examined in the paper — one “business as usual” scenario, which looked at the effects of climate change if humans continued emitting as they do now, and another scenario in which efforts were taken to curb emissions.

Despite the projected increase in human deaths, a silver lining still exists­— in comparing the two emissions scenarios, the team saw that a substantial number of those deaths could be avoided if the human population adheres to the lower emissions scenario.

Experts whose work deals with climate change agreed that the results of this study present a stark portrait of the future humans are going to face.

“This study shows a reality we’ll have to get used to because we have relatively high confidence in temperature projections,” said Amir AghaKouchak, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of California Irvine. “We need to expect more from our policy makers than expecting people to automatically do something about those things,” he added.

“This study presents not only a public health argument for mitigating climate change, but also an opportunity to think about adaptation to climate,” said Kate Weinberger, lead author and postdoctoral fellow in Brown’s Institute for Environment and Society. “What can we do — is it opening cooling centers, warning people about heat waves, planting more trees or planning city infrastructure in a way that produces good effects?”

Especially in today’s political climate with its current debate surrounding climate change, this area of research can “provide some clear scientific evidence on the issue and make it less abstract,” Gasparinni said.

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