Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Heat-related mortality trends under recent climate warming in Spain: A 36-year observational study
Hicham Achebak, Daniel Devolder, Joan Ballester
Published: July 24, 2018
Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased summer temperatures in Spain by nearly one degree Celsius on average between 1980 and 2015. However, little is known about the extent to which the association between heat and human mortality has been modified. We here investigate whether the observed warming has been associated with an upward trend in excess mortality attributable to heat or, on the contrary, a decrease in the vulnerability to heat has contributed to a reduction of the mortality burden.
Methods and findings
We analysed a dataset from 47 major cities in Spain for the summer months between 1980 and 2015, which included daily temperatures and 554,491 deaths from circulatory and respiratory causes, by sex. We applied standard quasi-Poisson regression models, controlling for seasonality and long-term trends, and estimated the temporal variation in heat-related mortality with time-varying distributed lag nonlinear models (DLNMs). Results pointed to a reduction in the relative risks of cause-specific and cause-sex mortality across the whole range of summer temperatures. These reductions in turn explained the observed downward trends in heat-attributable deaths, with the only exceptions of respiratory diseases for women and both sexes together. The heat-attributable deaths were consistently higher in women than in men for both circulatory and respiratory causes. The main limitation of our study is that we were not able to account for air pollution in the models because of data unavailability.
Despite the summer warming observed in Spain between 1980 and 2015, the decline in the vulnerability of the population has contributed to a general downward trend in overall heat-attributable mortality. This reduction occurred in parallel with a decline in the vulnerability difference between men and women for circulatory and cardiorespiratory mortality. Despite these advances, the risk of death remained high for respiratory diseases, and particularly in women.
The study authors consider the possibility that greater use of air conditioners and wider consciousness of the risk of heat stress might have reduced Summer mortality.
… Several factors have the potential to modify population vulnerability over time and, therefore, the eventual incidence of increasing temperatures on heat-related mortality. In ageing societies such as Europe, the rising elderly population is expected to increase vulnerability to high ambient temperatures, given that the elderly have diminished physiological capacity for the regulation of body core temperature under heat stress conditions . On the contrary, general improvements in housing conditions (e.g., wider use of air conditioning systems in retirement homes) and healthcare services (e.g., improved treatment of heat-related morbidity) [6,7] as well as some planned adaptive measures to reduce the exposure and vulnerability to heat (e.g., implementation of effective heat health warning systems)  could all contribute to reducing the negative health consequences of temperatures and warming trends. …
Read more: Same link as above
President Obama once infamously tried to link his daughter’s asthma to global warming. On the basis of this study access to cheap energy and affordable air conditioning may be far more important to respiratory health, than trying to shave a few tenths of a degree off our alleged contribution to climate change.
Update (EW): Replaced the original caption image with a graph from the study to show the decline in Summer mortality, including respiratory mortality. Updated the title to “Summer” mortality rather than just focussing on “respiratory”.