Decade of neglect and politics undermined the CDC’s fight against climate change

Yearly heat-related deaths have more than doubled in Arizona in the last decade to 283. Across the country, heat caused at least 10,000 deaths between 1999 and 2016 — more than hurricanes, tornadoes or floods in most years, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity.

Scientists link the warming planet to a rise in dangerous heat in the United States, as well as the spread of infectious diseases and other health conditions. Federal research predicts heat stroke and similar illnesses will claim tens of thousands of American lives each year by the end of the century. Already, higher temperatures pose lethal risks: The top five warmest years nationwide have all occurred since 2006. In the last six decades, the number of annual heat waves in 50 U.S. cities has, on average, tripled. In contrast to a viral pandemic, like the one caused by the novel coronavirus, this is a quiet, insidious threat with no end point.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is charged with helping cities and states adapt to threats like extreme heat. Its climate program, created more than 10 years ago, is the federal government’s only sustained effort to bolster state and local health departments’ fight against global warming. But the program has been hampered by a decade of underfunding, limited expertise and political resistance, Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity found.

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