Heatwaves Will Be As Deadly As Diseases Globally — Should We Name Them To Raise Awareness?

Staying safe during a heat wave - VAntage Point

A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that if we don’t get global warming under control, the number of deaths globally from heat-related illness will rival the current number of deaths from all infectious diseases combined.  The death toll will be highest “in poorer, hotter parts of the world that will struggle to adapt to unbearable conditions,” according to The Globe report on the study.  The elderly will be hard hit as well by the “indirect” effects of heat.  One of the study’s authors, Amir Jina, an environmental economist at the University of Chicago explained, “It’s eerily similar to Covid – vulnerable people are those who have pre-existing or underlying conditions. If you have a heart problem and are hammered for days by the heat, you are going to be pushed towards collapse.”

Why This Matters:  Heat is considered a “silent killer” because there is little awareness about its health risks. To raise awareness many experts have recommended naming heat waves just like we do hurricanes and now winter storms. The TV media is also not drawing the connection between extreme heatwaves and climate change — leaving the public ignorant of both the dangers and the cause.

Winners and Losers In a Warming World

The study says that the tropics will suffer the worst impacts  — countries such as Ghana, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sudan will see an additional 200 or more deaths per 100,000 people. At the same time, wealthy northern countries such as Norway and Canada will experience a decrease in fatalities as fewer and fewer people perish due to extreme cold.  As we now know all too well from the pandemic, there is an economic cost to illness and death.  The study’s authors estimate that “The economic cost of these deaths is set to be severe, costing the world 3.2% of global economic output by the end of the century if emissions are not tamed. Each ton of planet-warming carbon dioxide emitted will cost $36.60 in damage in this high-emissions world.”

Heat’s Danger

Shannon Osaka writes in Grist that high heat is a killer because it puts extra stress on the body, forcing blood toward your core and making your heart beat faster, making the elderly and weak particularly vulnerable. But even for young and healthy people who work outdoors, heatstroke can be deadly when temperatures reach extremes.  So now there is a rising chorus of support for naming and ranking the severity of heatwaves, led by  The Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, a brand-new initiative formed by city governments, non-governmental organizations, and scientists.  This, they argue, will increase “public awareness and encourage local cities and states to take preventative measures — setting up air-conditioned cooling centers, for example, and sending search-and-rescue teams to check on elderly and vulnerable populations.”

Not Being Connected To Climate By The Media

The TV media is helpful in warning the public about upcoming heatwaves, but they fail to connect these events to climate change.  For many weeks this summer, tens of millions of Americans were exposed to a prolonged and oppressive heat wave complicating the response to and increasing the spread of COVID-19, and as well as increasing the risks to communities of color and frontline communities that are disproportionately impacted by both.  According to Media Matters, which analyzed “one week of broadcast TV news coverage from July 12 to July 19 and found that ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 40 segments that discussed the heatwave on their nightly and morning news programs. The vast majority of mentions appeared during the networks’ weather forecasts, but none of these segments connected extreme heat to climate change. Additionally, only three segments mentioned the heat in relation to COVID-19, and none explored the fact that extreme heat is disproportionately impacting minority communities.”

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