Our planet is undeniably getting hotter – and global health is already starting to pay the cost.
Yesterday, it was announced that 2020 is on track to be one of the three warmest years on record, just behind 2016 and 2019. In their State of the Global Climate in 2020 provisional report, the World Meteorological Organization also stated 2011 to 2020 will be the warmest decade on record, with the years since 2015 being especially hot.
It’s all too easy to assume climate change is some kind of abstract problem tied up in graphs and sensational headlines. However, it’s becoming increasingly apparent how the crisis facing our environment is impacting human life. In a new report, also released this week, the Lancet medical journal has taken a deep look at how the climate crisis is already having an effect on our health.
The 2020 Report of the Lancet Countdown details the wide array of consequences the warming climate is taking on human health, from heat strokes and heart attacks to a rise in infectious disease and mounting threats to food security. By their estimates, there were 296,000 heat-related deaths in older people across the world in 2018, a 54 percent rise since 2000.
The impact of climate change on human health is much more subtle than collapsing during a heatwave, although that is certainly an issue, especially among older people in the Northern Hemisphere. The report looks at over 40 indicators that link health and climate change in a range of fields.
Food is a big factor. In the face of rising temperatures and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, the world’s major crops have declined in yield by 1.8 to 5.6 percent from 1981 to 2020. With this change comes further threats to global food security and unstable food systems that create worse diets.
Climate change is also set to rock public health infrastructure across the world. In the report, they analyzed over 800 cities and predicted that climate change would “seriously compromise public health infrastructure” in two-thirds of them, which would clearly have an impact on the health of their local population.
Disease is also a major concern. The report argues that rising temperatures are leading to more favorable conditions for the spread of deadly infectious diseases, such as dengue fever, malaria, and vibriosis, which could rewind decades of progress. Furthermore, climate change will increase the chances of emerging zoonotic diseases jumping from animals to humans, creating brand new pandemic and disease outbreak risks. Considering the events of the past year, it’s clear how damaging this could be.
“If we wish to reduce the risk of future pandemics, we must prioritize action on the climate crisis – one of the most powerful forces driving zoonoses today,” Dr Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, said in a statement via email. “This is a moment we cannot afford to ignore. Just as we have seen with Covid-19, delayed action will cause avoidable deaths.”
It's a pretty bleak picture, but it's quickly becoming a reality that's too harsh to ignore. In a speech about climate change on Wednesday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared: "Humanity is waging war on nature."
"This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back -- and it is already doing so with growing force and fury," he added.
“To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken."