Heat-Related Deaths Predicted to Rise by Turn of the Century Due to Climate Change

May 29, 2012
The heat wave impacting the Midwest section of the country over the Memorial Day weekend is just the start of a warming trend, according to scientific trend data from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The “Killer Summer Heat” report from NRDC estimates a rise in heat deaths in at least 40 U.S. cities, with as many as 150,000 additional Americans dying of heat-related illness by the end of this century due to excessive heat caused by climate change.

The Killer Summer Heat report projects heat-related death toll through the end of the 21st century in the most populated U.S. cities. The three with the highest number of total estimated heat-related deaths through 2099 are: Louisville, Ky., (19,000 deaths); Detroit (17,900); and Cleveland, Ohio (16,600), according to the report.

Other cities' estimated death tolls through the end of the century include: Baltimore (2,900 deaths); Boston (5,700 deaths); Chicago (6,400 deaths); Columbus, Ohio (6,000 deaths); Denver (3,500 deaths); Los Angeles (1,200 deaths); Minneapolis (7,500 deaths); Philadelphia (700 deaths); Pittsburgh (1,200 deaths); Providence, R.I. (2,000 deaths); St. Louis (5,600 deaths); Washington, D.C. (3,000 deaths).

"This is a wake-up call. Climate change has a number of real life-and-death consequences. One of which is that as carbon pollution continues to grow, climate change is only going to increase the number of dangerously hot days each summer, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of lives lost," said Dan Lashof, director of NRDC's climate and clean air program. "To prevent the health impacts of climate change from getting even worse, we need to establish a comprehensive program to reduce heat-trapping pollution from all sources, by building on the Environmental Protection Agency's proposals to limit carbon pollution from new power plants and cars."

The projected deaths are based on the widely used assumption that carbon pollution will steadily increase in the absence of effective new policies, more than doubling the levels seen today by the end of the century.

Consequences of Climate Change

“Climate change is an urgent public health concern,” said David Doniger, policy director, climate and clean air program. “Many Americans have had personal experiences with extreme weather in recent years that brought home some of the damaging effects and high costs of a changing climate. Many of these extreme events are influenced by climate change, which is loading the weather dice and contributing to some of the most harmful health conditions we face – including increased ozone pollution, lethal, extreme heat, floods and droughts.”

The kinds of consequences of climate change highlighted in NRDC's report are already evident, according to the group:

At least 42 states saw record daytime highs in the summer of 2011 and 49 states saw record high nighttime temperatures, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Health impacts spike during excessive heat events. For example, California was hit by deadly heat waves in 2006, causing 655 deaths, 1,620 excess hospitalizations and more than 16,000 additional emergency room visits during a two-week period, resulting in nearly $5.4 billion in costs. During a record-setting heat wave in 1995, Chicago suffered over 700 additional heat-related deaths.

The elderly and young children face bigger risks than most, according to the report.

"Our research shows that rising temperatures could cause five times the number of excessive heat event days by mid-century and eight-times the number by century's end," said Dr. Larry Kalkstein, research professor of geography and regional studies at the University of Miami. "These hotter days have a real human cost."

The risks to public health are greatest when high temperatures and certain weather conditions combine to cause excessive heat events (EHE). EHE days occur when a location's temperature, dew point temperature cloud cover, wind speed and surface atmospheric pressure throughout the day combine to cause or contribute to heat-related deaths in that location.

NRDC based its analysis on two peer-reviewed studies co-authored by Kalkstein, one of which was published in the American Meteorological Society's journal Weather, Climate and Society, and the other published in Natural Hazards.

The dangers of carbon pollution were the subject of EPA public hearings on May 24 on its proposal to limit carbon pollution from new power plants. The EPA is taking public comment on the proposal through June 25th. The proposal is the federal government's first step toward setting limits for industrial carbon sources.

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