Climate change isn’t just the harbinger of extreme weather events – it’s also having an insidious effect on human health. This has been known for some time now, but a new major report published by The Lancet Countdown is arguably the most comprehensive look at the phenomenon to date. It’s a sobering reminder that the damage isn’t to come – it’s being inflicted on billions of people right now.
Written by 24 academic institutions across the world, including the World Health Organization (WHO), it reveals that a record number of people are suffering from the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, unprecedented heatwaves, respiratory and cardiovascular problems, and malnutrition.
Worse of all, at this point, there may be little anyone can do about it.
“The human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible – affecting the health of populations around the world, today,” the report concludes. Whilst these effects will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable in society, every community will be affected.
It is also keen to emphasize that something should have been done about the problem long ago. Frameworks like the Paris Agreement are certainly welcome, but “the delayed response to climate change over the past 25 years has jeopardized human life and livelihoods.”
The report is wide-ranging, but here are the key findings of it.
Malnutrition: This was identified as the largest health impact of climate change this century. Climatic extremes and unparalleled temperature rises – particularly near the equator – mean that crops cannot survive or adapt to the pace of change. Vital crops are also becoming nutrient-poor. For every 1°C (1.8°F) rise, rice yields will fall 10 percent, and wheat yields will fall 6 percent.
Heatwaves: Extended periods of time with anomalously high air temperatures are known as heatwaves, and they are potentially fatal to those who are very young, elderly, or sick. Between 2000 and 2016, 125 million more vulnerable people were exposed to heatwaves, with a record 175 million experiencing them in 2015. By 2050, an additional 1 billion people will have experienced heatwaves.
Air pollution: Already shown to kill around 6 million people every year – particularly those in low-income nations – this new report reveals that 87 percent of cities around the world are in breach of WHO air pollution guidelines.
Migration: At least 1 billion people will need to migrate by the end of the century due to rising sea levels alone, maybe more.
Communicable diseases: Infections transmitted by mosquitos and similar parasites will move further north and south as the warm equatorial band spreads outwards. Dengue virus, for example, already infects up to 100 million people worldwide every year, up from 1990 by around 6 percent.
Natural disasters: There has been a 46 percent increase in extreme weather events since 2000. Apart from destroying infrastructure and killing people, they are also responsible for economic losses of around $129 billion in 2016 alone, something which is set to rise after this year’s events.
The report is uncompromisingly stark. Although its focus is largely on human health, it also points out that climate change is causing millions of job losses – again, mainly in poorer nations. All in all, this is a rapidly unfolding anthropogenic disaster.
Despite the fact that much of this damage is irreversible, global action on climate change is still advocated by the report’s authors.
“The potential benefits and opportunities are enormous, including cleaning the air of polluted cities, delivering more nutritious diets, ensuring energy, food, and water security, and alleviating poverty and social and economic inequalities,” they explained.
They point out that patients listen to their doctors when something’s wrong – and governments need to do the same.