Global Warming to Increase Heat-Related Deaths in Houston

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Extreme heat will claim 192 lives by mid-century, according to expert analysis

HOUSTON – The death toll from extreme heat in Houston each summer will increase from about 24 to nearly 32, resulting in 192 additional heat-related deaths by mid-century as global warming drives up summertime temperatures, according to a new report released by Environment Texas and conducted by Applied Climatologists, Inc. experts Dr. Laurence Kalkstein of the University of Miami and Dr. Scott Greene of the University of Oklahoma.

The study’s examination of twenty-one U.S. cities found that 23,160 additional heat-related deaths would occur due to global warming-induced temperature increases. The average summer season would see a doubling of heat-related deaths, going from about 908 heat-related deaths per summer to almost 1,900 by mid-century.

“Make no mistake—heat kills,” said JJ Karabias, Federal Field Associate with Environment Texas  “We need Congress to enact federal policy that reduces global warming pollution to the levels that science says will prevent the worst effects of global warming.”

The report uses two measures to show the likely changes. The first measure pinpoints the change in “increased mortality days,” which are days that exceed a city’s temperature threshold for excess mortality. In Houston that heat threshold is 110 degrees and the city currently experiences 5 days above that threshold, increasing to 12 by mid-century.

The second measure looks at deaths that occur once the temperature threshold is exceeded. Houston currently experiences an average of 24 heat-related deaths per summer. That is projected to increase to about 32 by mid-century.

The prolonged high temperatures of future heat waves will impact aging baby boomers the most, with young children, people with certain medical conditions, and people who work or exercise outdoors also being at elevated risk. In addition, the urban poor, many of whom do not have air conditioning and lack access to air-conditioned public places, are vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.

“We must commit to cutting our global warming pollution by 80% by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of global warming,” said Karabias. “Representatives Gene Green and the rest of the Houston congressional delegation should waste not a minute more in co-sponsoring science-based, emission cutting legislation. If we are to avoid the worst effects of global climate change, the time to act is now. Houston’s geographical positioning makes it particularly susceptible to the effects of warming.”

The study’s findings are consistent with a 1997 scientific study by Drs. Kalkstein and Greene on the relationship between changing climate and mortality in large U.S. cities, published in “Environmental Health Perspectives,” which also found that populations in mid-latitude cities tend to be those most affected by temperature changes. As a result, the increases in mortality during heat waves are generally higher in the northern cities. The study was conducted through Dr. Kalkstein’s firm, Applied Climatologists, Inc.

“Kalkstein and Green’s analysis projecting significant increases in heat-related mortality joins a growing scientific literature on the current and coming health effects of climate change,” said Dr. Bonnie New, a Houston-based, board certified Occupational and Environmental Physician. “The human health effects, both direct and indirect, of global climate change will be severe in terms of both morbidity and mortality. The time to address the problem is now.”