Climate Change Threatens Global Health

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“Climate change is a medical emergency. It thus demands an emergency response, using the technologies available right now.”

This is the conclusion drawn in a new report commissioned by The Lancet and University College London (UCL), which investigated how global health could be affected by a changing climate. In the document, the authors claim that reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and slashing greenhouse gas emissions will give us the greatest opportunity to improve health benefits in the 21st century.

“Climate change has the potential to reverse the health gains from economic development that have been made in recent decades – not just through the direct effects on health from a changing and more unstable climate, but through indirect means such as increased migration and reduced social stability,” explains Professor Anthony Costello of UCL.

“However, our analysis clearly shows that by tackling climate change, we can also benefit health, and tackling climate change in fact represents one of the greatest opportunities to benefit human health for generations to come,” continues Costello.

The detailed analysis emphasizes that there are both direct and indirect impacts of a warming planet. Extreme weather events have a very direct impact, as the chances of floods, droughts and storms are all set to increase. For example, the recent heat wave that shocked India this year killed over 1,700 people and the one that hit Russia in 2010 is thought to have contributed to the deaths of an astonishing 11,000 people.

Indirect impacts listed by the study are those such as air pollution from burning fossil fuels – currently having a massive impact on health in many larger Chinese cities – and food insecurity. Another is the altered distribution of infectious diseases. As average temperatures increase, the spread of mosquitoes and the diseases they carry hav also increased – the threat of an outbreak of dengue fever in Europe is now a very real possibility, according to the WHO.   

However, tackling the main causes of climate change, the authors say, will also mean mitigating many of these health issues. If we cut carbon emissions, we won’t just be curbing the warming of our planet, but also helping to protect against respiratory diseases, and encouraging people to walk and cycle more often will help combat obesity and diabetes.

The commission finishes by saying that the backing of a strong international consensus is needed to make the world move towards a low-carbon economy. But this isn’t as far out of reach as you might imagine. Last year, an international group of economists said that the biggest threat to the world’s economy was climate change, and the International Monetary Fund revealed that global fossil fuels were subsidized to the tune of $10 million a minute. The financial and technological ability already exists, what’s missing is the political will.   

“The health community has responded to many grave threats to health in the past. It took on entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry, and led the fight against HIV/AIDS. Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to human and environmental health of our generation,” says Professor Peng Gong of Tsinghua University.

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