Sunday, March 3, 2024

As U.S. Climate Policies Fall Short, New Research Says Climate Change Could Reduce Life Expectancy By 6 Months

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Climate change’s dire impact now includes reducing life expectancy by as much as six months. And with policy efforts failing to mitigate the crisis, millions of lives could be lost.

A groundbreaking study published today in the open-access journal PLOS Climate, reveals for the first time, a strong correlation between climate change and human lifespan. Led by Amit Roy from Shahjalal University of Science and Technology and The New School for Social Research, U.S., the study suggests that the average human lifespan may be reduced by six months due to climate change impacts.

The research delves into the direct and indirect public health concerns linked to climate change, such as natural disasters, like flooding and heat waves, and illnesses including respiratory and mental health issues. Although the adverse effects of climate change on health are well-documented, prior studies have not directly connected climate change to life expectancy.

Urgent public health crisis

Roy’s study methodically analyzed data from 191 countries spanning from 1940 to 2020. It examined average temperature, rainfall, life expectancy, and used GDP per capita as a control factor to account for the disparities between countries.

A key outcome of the study is the creation of a novel composite climate change index, which amalgamates temperature and rainfall data to measure the overall severity of climate change. The study found that a global temperature rise of 1°C alone could lead to a reduction in average human life expectancy by about 0.44 years, roughly 5 months and 1 week. Furthermore, a 10-point increase in the composite climate change index correlates with a six-month decrease in life expectancy. This impact is more pronounced among women and people in developing countries.

climate rebellion
Photo Courtesy Hari Nandakumar

Dr. Roy expressed optimism that the composite climate change index could become a pivotal tool in the global discourse on climate change. He envisions it becoming a standard metric for the general public, fostering collaboration and even competitive measures among nations to mitigate climate impacts.

The study underscores the necessity of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate shifts. Roy also advocates for localized studies that focus on specific extreme weather events, like wildfires, tsunamis, and floods, to capture their full impact, which cannot be entirely reflected through temperature and rainfall analysis alone.

Dr. Roy emphasizes the urgency of the situation: “The global threat posed by climate change to the well-being of billions underscores the urgent need to address it as a public health crisis, as revealed by this study, emphasizing that mitigation efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and proactive initiatives are essential to safeguard life expectancy and protect the health of populations worldwide.”

U.S. climate policy

The life expectancy findings come amid new data showing the U.S. climate policies have significant weaknesses. The new research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change by researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and their collaborators suggests that recent U.S. climate change mitigation projections may be overly optimistic. The study highlights various factors, including consumer behavior and political polarization, that could impact the effectiveness of these climate laws.

The researchers look specifically at the enactment of landmark federal laws such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021. These legislations, focusing on clean energy and technological innovation, aim to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with some estimates projecting over a 40 percent decrease from 2005 levels by 2030.

wind turbines
Photo courtesy Gonz DDL

Leaf Van Boven, a co-author of the paper and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder, underscored the significance of this moment for America. “America stands at a pivotal moment with the passage of its ambitious climate legislation,” he said. “The nation’s ability to unite behind these transformative policies will either ignite a sustainable energy revolution or fumble into the familiar deadlock of political discord.”

The effectiveness of these climate laws hinges on how efficiently the allocated funds are utilized. For instance, the pace and scale at which renewable energy infrastructure projects, funded by these policies, are executed will play a critical role in determining their success. Currently, it takes an average of six to eight years for the U.S. federal government to issue a permit for a power transmission project.

Matt Burgess, a co-author of the paper, fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research and Environmental Sciences (CIRES), and director of the Center for Social and Environmental Futures (C-SEF), noted a significant challenge. He stated, “If it takes six to eight years to get a permit for a power line and even longer to get a utility-scale solar project approved, we might have almost no shovels in the ground in many key areas by 2035, when we’re supposed to have already made significant progress.”

Political polarization also poses a threat to the effectiveness of these policies. The researchers pointed out that if these climate laws become too politically divisive, leading to their repeal by the next Congress or noncompliance by local governments, their impact could be nullified.

a truck drives through a mountainous forest
Photo courtesy Bruno van der Kraan

The team also suggested potential strategies to mitigate this resistance, such as reframing these laws to reduce political polarization.

In a related report by C-SEF, Burgess and his team found that attitudes toward climate change significantly influenced voting patterns in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Their research indicated that the climate issue likely cost the Republican party the 2020 election.

Burgess commented on the political ramifications, saying, “This is obviously information that politicians and advocates across the political spectrum will want to know, heading into the 2024 election cycle.” He also emphasized the research group’s interest in exploring ways to reduce political polarization around climate change.

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