Climate change threatens global health

Climate change threatens to undermine 50 years of progress in global health, according to a major new report.

Ma Khin Myaing, wife of U Win Myaing and the first in her village to buy a fuel efficient stove, cooks the family dinner. Photo: Cat Vinton/SLOW LIFE Foundation

Ma Khin Myaing cooks the family dinner a fuel efficient stove that significantly reduces indoor air-pollution.
Photo: Cat Vinton/SLOW LIFE Foundation

But slashing fossil fuel use also presents greatest global opportunity to improve people’s health in 21st century

WHO backing
The report was produced by the Lancet/UCL commission on health and climate change, a collaboration of dozens of experts from around the world, and is backed by Margaret Chan, head of the UN World Health Organisation.

The report view climate change as a major health issue and that it is often neglected in the policy debates. The comprehensive analysis sets out the direct risks to health, including heatwaves, floods and droughts, and indirect – but no less deadly – risks, including air pollution, spreading diseases, famines and mental ill-health.

A rapid phase-out of coal from the global energy mix is among the commission’s top recommendations, given the millions of premature deaths from air pollution this would prevent.

Positive message
The report states that political will is now the major barrier to delivering a low-carbon economy and the associated improvements to health and poverty, not finance or technology.

The authors argue that health has been neglected from the climate change debate. It says doctors and other health professionals must take a leading role in ending society’s “addiction” to fossil fuels, having confronted “powerful entrenched interests”, such as the tobacco industry, in the past.

The commission is seeking consciously to shift the balance from “catastrophism” to a far more positive message about the potential for improving human health.

The report is the latest in a line of significant interventions in the run-up to a crunch UN climate summit in Paris in December, when nations hope to agree a global deal on cutting emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in November of “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” from global warming, shortly after an international group of economists warned that the world’s future economic growth depended on taming climate change.

In May, financial experts at the International Monetary Fund revealed that the full costs of fossil fuels being picked up by taxpayers runs at $10m (£6m) per minute, more than the total spent on healthcare by the world’s governments.

Deaths are rising
Deaths from air pollution are rising around the world. The Lancet report cites research estimating that cutting carbon emissions would cut premature deaths from air pollution by 500,000 a year in 2030, 1.3m in 2050 and 2.2m in 2100, particularly in the heavily polluted cities of India and China. Other work in the US shows the boosts to human health can be worth 10 times the costs of cutting emissions.

The report details the range of damage to health that global warming causes, including heatwaves whose deadly effects are rising around the world, for example in Russia in 2010 where 11,000 people died. Dengue fever is likely to spread, the report finds, and malaria cases may rise in some areas while falling in others. Cholera outbreaks occur when hurricanes mix waste and drinking water and extreme weather is increasing.

Food shortages may increase as climate change harms crops and livestock and the ability to work in hot climates, the report states. Such shortages can lead people to migrate as refugees, leading to further health problems, or even to conflicts. People forced to move, whether by food shortages, floods or extreme storms, can suffer serious mental health problems.

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