A new report into the risks posed to human health by climate change has suggested that, up to now, these risks have been underestimated and while we may have the technologies and finance to address these issues, global political will to implement them is lacking. This is the view of a major new commission, publishing their findings in The Lancet.
The direct health impacts of climate change include the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, especially heat waves, floods, droughts and storms. Indirect impacts come from changes in infectious disease patterns, air pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, involuntary migration, displacement and conflicts.
Anthony Costello, Director of the UCL Institute for Global Health, said: “Climate change has the potential to reverse the health gains from economic development that have been made in recent decades… 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.”
Commission co-Chair Professor Hugh Montgomery, director of the UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance, added: “Climate change is a medical emergency. It thus demands an emergency response, using the technologies available right now. Under such circumstances, no doctor would consider a series of annual case discussions and aspirations adequate, yet this is exactly how the global response to climate change is proceeding.”
The immediate health gains through action on climate change are quite clear – burning fewer fossil fuels reduces respiratory diseases, and active transport (walking or cycling) cut pollution and road traffic accidents, as well as reduce rates of obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke. When produced on a mass scale, red meat causes pollution so reductions here would also lead to a healthier, more balanced diet.
The commission concludes that a strong international consensus is essential to move the world to a global low-carbon economy, harnessing a crucial opportunity to protect human health, particularly those in the poorest areas, who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Commission co-Chair Professor Peng Gong, from Tsinghua University, Beijing, said: “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.”
In addition to this report, the commission has also published a clear set of recommendations for policy makers to enable an effective response to climate change that protects and promotes human health.