Former VP Al Gore urges action on growing health threats from climate change

Former Vice President Al Gore is interviewed by Nancy Gibbs onstage during the TIME 100 Health Summit in New York City. (Brian Ach/Getty Images for TIME 100 Health Summit)

NEW YORK CITYClimate change is leading to serious public health crises that need more attention from our nation's leaders, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said during an interview at the TIME 100 Health Summit Oct.17.

"The number of deaths related to climate change are mostly from heat stress now, and that’s true in the U.S. and worldwide," said Gore, an environmental activist. He pointed to figures that show heat-related deaths are increasingly tied to extreme heat waves such as the 2003 European heat wave that claimed over 70,000 lives in 12 countries, he said.

Beyond that, he said, tropical diseases are spreading to higher latitudes due to warming temperatures, with West Nile virus and dengue fever now invading North America. Pollution around the globe now contributes to an estimated 9 million deaths annually, or roughly 1 in 6.

Scientists have found that extreme rainfall events are trending upward, and nine of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have happened since 1990. More than two-thirds of waterborne disease outbreaks come in the immediate aftermath of these downpours, Gore said, due to things like septic tanks overflowing and contamination from animal waste or hazardous waste facilities. 

"We're emitting 142 million tons of manmade global warming pollution in the sky every day, and that’s trapping as much extra energy daily as 500,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs would release every 24 hours," Gore said.

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Experts have said healthcare providers and healthcare organizations will see an uptick in illnesses from extreme heat and infectious diseases from the climate change impact, and many doctors are already seeing the effects. Last June, more than 70 medical and public health organizations called for U.S. leaders to combat climate change, which the groups called a “health emergency."

Across the globe, the last five years have been the hottest on record. And beyond the impact on health, there is a significant economic toll. Weather disasters in 2017 and 2018 cost the global economy $653 billion, Gore said.

A changing response

While climate change research paints a daunting picture, the private and public sectors already have the tools in place to reduce global warming pollution, Gore said. He cited efforts by private sector leaders such as Salesforce.com and Apple. Salesforce.com has set a goal of being powered by 100% renewable energy; Apple announced it achieved that goal in April 2018.

Many leading healthcare organizations like Kaiser Permanente, Cleveland Clinic and Partners Healthcare also are committed to mitigating their environmental impact through efforts to reduce energy usage for data centers, shifting to renewable forms of energy and building resilient hospitals.

The private sector is in the early stages of a "sustainability revolution," Gore said. Companies are using new digital technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning that are providing much higher levels of precision when it comes to energy use, according to Gore.

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"Executive teams now can manage atoms and protons and molecules with the same precision that IT companies have demonstrated with managing information," he said. Google has used artificial intelligence through its DeepMind project to reduce the energy required to cool its data centers by 40%, Gore noted.

"We’re seeing a huge shift toward investment in renewable energy, batteries, and electric vehicles," he said.

Five years ago, electricity from new solar and wind facilities was cheaper than electricity from new fossil plants in 1% of the world, Gore said, and now it’s cheaper in two-thirds of the world. Utility companies in the U.S. are increasingly making moves to shut large natural gas power plants as part of a shift toward generating electricity from solar and wind facilities.

This progress is in spite of what Gore referred to as the Trump administration's "shameful and dangerous" moves to roll back many environmental rules.

The Trump administration has taken steps to undercut efforts by previous administrations to reduce emissions and fight climate change, such as rescinding environmental rules governing emissions of methane.

RELATED: Climate impact: Healthcare is a top producer of greenhouse gases. Can it also be part of the solution?

In spite of what Gore called the "catastrophic collapse" of policy at the federal level in the U.S., the majority of Americans live in states like California, New York and Washington that are taking steps to reduce pollution and address the health consequences of it, he said.

Among voters, the public sector is crossing a political tipping point when it comes to addressing climate change.

"It's important to change the government policies at the federal, state and local levels, and in order to change the policies, we have a pressing need to change the policymakers, in both parties. We need to get rid of the ones who have been taking massive amounts of campaign and lobbying money from fossil fuel companies," Gore said.

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