Climate Extremes and Global Health

New Ways to Make Progress

A helicopter dropping water on the Carr fire in California, July 2018 Fred Greaves / Reuters

The last few years have brought a string of terrible news about the global climate. Politically, the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change is stalling. The United States has announced that it will abandon the pact, and no other country has stepped up to fill the vacuum. Emissions rose 1.4 percent last year and no major industrialized country is on track to meet the emission control pledges it made in Paris, which means that the world is way off track to meeting the target of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures. Scientifically, the news is even grimmer. New research in climate science indicates that extreme events, such as heat waves, the collapse of major ice sheets, and mass extinctions, are becoming dramatically more probable. And the evidence is mounting that climate change will have an extreme impact on human health into the near future.

These two strands of bad news offer a road map for doing better: the new scientific research on climate change, with its terrifying insights into what humans are doing to the environment, could help activists and political leaders build the political momentum for deep and costly cuts in emissions. Until now, most of the research about the impact of climate change has confirmed the maxim that the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky outlined decades ago: “richer is safer.” Scientists believed that because wealthier societies had the resources to adapt to a warmer world, poor countries would suffer more. This presented a political problem because most emissions come from rich or emerging economies. In fact, the wealthiest one billion people around the world (living in both rich and poor nations) are responsible for more than 50 percent of the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

But new studies show that the rich are far more exposed than anyone realized—especially to deadly heat. In the past, efforts to build political support to combat climate change centered on abstract arguments about the slow buildup of carbon dioxide in

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