Health and medical organizations from around the world are calling on governments to respond to the major health risks described in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s recent Second Working Group reporting, ‘Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation,’ which was released on Monday.
In a briefing document summarizing the IPCC report’s implications for health, now and in the future, the Global Climate & Health Alliance (GCHA) argues that there is still time to turn what has been called “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century” into one of our biggest opportunities to improve health.
“…worst impacts on health are being borne by those in developing nations”
“We are already seeing serious threats to health from heatwaves and bushfires in Australia, which are increasing due to climate change; but we know the worst impacts on health are being borne by those in developing nations,” said Dr. Liz Hanna, President of Climate and Health Alliance (Australia) “We can respond to this threat, and action now will prevent further harm. We call on our health and medical colleagues around the world to join us in demanding strong action to reduce emissions to limit these risks to health.”
GCHA’s briefing report was being launched on 3rd April, together with a short film (below) and set of useful online resources. It summarizes the state of the science, using evidence synthesized in the IPCC report as its primary basis, and calls for urgent action to protect health from climate change and to promote health through low-carbon, sustainable development.
Below are some examples of the ways in which climate change is projected to impact on human health:
- In Australia, the number of “dangerously hot” days, when core body temperatures may increase by two degrees Celsius or more, threatening health, is projected to rise from the current four-six days per year, to as high as 33-45 days per year by 2070.
- Climate change shows a strong association with the spread of many infectious diseases, including dengue fever, chikungunya and visceral leishmaniasis.
- It is forecast to drive up food prices and to increase the number of undernourished children under five by 20-25 million globally, by 2050. This, in turn, is associated with a significant increase in stunting, anemia and child mortality.
- Water-related diseases (eg. diarrhoea, cholera, schistosomiasis) will likely increase, due to flooding, increased run-off (reducing water quality) and water scarcity.
- It is expected that climate change will act as a driver of migration and potentially also conflict, further increasing vulnerability to extreme weather and food insecurity.
“…human health is profoundly threatened by our failure to tackle climate change”
“Climate change and health are inextricably linked,” said Josko Mise, President of International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations “As future physicians, medical students have a moral responsibility to put patients’ health first. By taking action now we can improve the health of our communities, and prevent millions of needless deaths.”
It is clear that human health is profoundly threatened by our failure to tackle climate change. A recent letter to the editor of the Times, from the UK’s most senior health professionals, stated:
Never before have we known so much and done so little. Failing to act decisively and quickly will inevitably cause great suffering and potentially catastrophic consequences.
Projected changes in flood frequency. Graphic courtesy of GCHA briefing report
WHO estimates air pollution responsible for one in every eight deaths globally
These statements come shortly after the World Health Organization revised its estimate of air pollution’s health impact upwards, to 7 million premature deaths annually: one in every eight deaths globally. Much of this air pollution is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Physical inactivity—which correlates with car ownership—results in a further 3.2 million premature deaths each year. This means that policies to improve air quality and increase physical activity (for example, low-carbon energy and active travel policies) represent an unprecedented opportunity to improve global public health and tackle climate change simultaneously.
Many other such health “co-benefits” exist, such as preventing thousands of avoidable deaths through investment in home insulation, or major reductions in diseases like heart disease and stroke achievable by increasing active travel and reducing consumption of red and processed meat.
“Human health is incredibly fragile in light of the threat that climate change poses,” said Julia Huscher of Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). “Mitigation efforts can have large health benefits—reducing the burning of fossil fuels and moving to cleaner energy sources can bring down the rates of important chronic diseases, especially cardiopulmonary diseases and diabetes. For the EU as a whole, the anticipated benefits of an ambitious set of EU climate and energy targets could be as high as €34.5 billion (equivalent to 0.21% of EU GDP)’’
Urgent need for rapid emissions reductions
The GCHA calls on all governments to commit to a binding and ambitious treaty at the UN climate negotiations in Paris 2015, including specific provision for the effective protection of public health. There is an urgent need to ensure that climate policy is designed so as to maximize its accompanying health benefits, as well as to ensure that the world achieves the sustained and rapid emissions reductions needed to avert dangerous climate change.
“The health sector needs to play a central role in addressing climate change by anchoring the community response to extreme weather events, leading by examples in mitigating its own climate footprint and becoming powerful messengers for climate policies that will improve the health of our communities and the planet,” said Gary Cohen, President of Health Care Without Harm.