Climate change could wipe out progress in health – or be a great global health opportunity
The threat climate change poses to human health is possibly so great that it could wipe out health progress over the past 50 years. But getting to grips with climate change could also present major opportunities for global health. Details can be found in a major international research report published in the journal The Lancet.
“Impact of climate change on global health could be enormous, not only through the direct health effects, but also because of reduced social stability if people are forced to move or flee,” said Peter Byass, Professor of Global Health at Umeå University, who has been a senior adviser to the work of the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change.
“Meanwhile, we know that mitigation and adaptation around climate change can have positive health effects, for example both by reducing emissions and improving dietary habits. Effective climate action may actually prove to be one of the greatest opportunities to also improve global health that we have ever had,” says Peter Byass.
The work behind the report, published this week by the journal The Lancet, involved a number of European and Chinese climate scientists, environmental scientists, natural scientists, social scientists, medical and health scholars, engineers, energy policy experts, and others.
The report shows that the direct health effects of climate change are linked to increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, especially heatwaves, floods, droughts and storms. Indirect impacts come from changes in infection patterns, effects of emissions, uncertainty regarding the availability of food, and hence malnutrition. Health effects can also be linked to people involuntarily forced to leave the affected areas or movements of people planned because of impending changes in living conditions. Increased incidence of conflict is also a factor that the report highlights as a threat to global health.
But global efforts to reduce emissions can achieve positive co-benefits for health. The report highlights a number of such points. These include reduced consumption of fossil fuels leading to lower incidence of respiratory diseases, as well as people walking and cycling more, which both reduce emissions and lower the incidence of obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, and stroke. Even the consumption of red meat, the production of which is not very climate-friendly, is expected to decline and also bring health benefits as a result.
The report proposes a new independent global action plan ”Countdown to 2030: Climate Change and Health Action”, with the formation of an organisation to monitor and report every two years to the UN on how links between health status and climate change are affected. The organisation would also report on progress towards reduced emissions, measures to promote health and to reduce the vulnerability of populations, and to create sustainable health systems with low carbon emissions.
“Overall, a strong international consensus is needed to create a global economy in which we minimise carbon dioxide emissions. This in turn presents an opportunity to improve human health. Measures recommended in this report are particularly important for populations in the world’s poorest and most vulnerable areas, which are also currently most affected by climate change,” says Maria Nilsson, researcher at the Division of Epidemiology and Global Health at Umeå University, who is one of the report's main editors.
“The health community has responded to a wide range of serious health threats over time; examples would be efforts to reduce smoking and the fight against HIV/AIDS. Now more efforts are essential in response to another major threat to human health and the environment: climate change. Shifting to a sustainable society is economically possible and would also provide health benefits,” says Maria Nilsson.
The Lancet Commission report will be an important resource for talks on climate change on global health during meetings connected with the UN Climate Change Conference, COP21, held in Paris from 30 November to 11 December, 2015.
Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health. The Lancet, Published Online June 23, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60854-6