The bad news is very bad, indeed. But first, the good news: "Responding to climate change could be the biggest global health opportunity of this century."
That message is the silver lining contained in a comprehensive newly published report by The Lancet, the UK-based medical journal, which explores the complex intersection between global human health and climate change.
The wide-ranging and peer-reviewed report—titled Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health—declares that the negative impacts of human-caused global warming have put at risk some of the world’s most impressive health gains over the last half century. What’s more, it says, continued use of fossil fuels is leading humanity to a future in which infectious disease patterns, air pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, involuntary migration, displacement, and violent conflict will all be made made worse.
"Climate change," said commission co-chairman Dr. Anthony Costello, a pediatrician and director of the Global Health Institute at the University College of London, "has the potential to reverse the health gains from economic development that have been made in recent decades – not just through the direct effects on health from a changing and more unstable climate, but through indirect means such as increased migration and reduced social stability. Our analysis clearly shows that by tackling climate change we can also benefit health. Tackling climate change represents one of the greatest opportunities to benefit human health for generations to come."
Put together by the newly formed Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change—described as a major new collaboration between international climate scientists and geographers, social and environmental scientists, biodiversity experts, engineers and energy policy experts, economists, political scientists and public policy experts, and health professionals—the report is the most up-to-date and comprehensive of its kind. Though many studies have been performed on the subject, the commission argues the "catastrophic risk to human health posed by climate change" has been grossly "underestimated" by others.
The four key findings of the report include:
1. The effects of climate change threaten to undermine the last half-century of gains in development and global health. The impacts are being felt today, and future projections represent an unacceptably high and potentially catastrophic risk to human health.
2. Tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.
3. Achieving a decarbonized global economy and securing the public health benefits it offers is no longer primarily a technological or economic question – it is now a political one.
4. Climate change is fundamentally an issue of human health, and health professionals have a vital role to play in accelerating progress on mitigation and adaptation policies.
"Climate Change is a medical emergency," said Dr. Hugh Montgomery, commission co-chair and director of the UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance. "It thus demands an emergency response."
With rising global temperatures fueling increasing extreme weather events, crop failures, water scarcity, and other crises, Montgomery says the report is an attempt to make it clear that drastic and immediate actions should be taken. "Under such circumstances," he said, "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."
In a companion paper published alongside the larger report, commission members Helena Wang and Richard Horton explained why human health impacts are an important part of the larger argument regarding climate change:
When climate change is framed as a health issue, rather than purely as an environmental, economic, or technological challenge, it becomes clear that we are facing a predicament that strikes at the heart of humanity. Health puts a human face on what can sometimes seem to be a distant threat. By making the case for climate change as a health issue, we hope that the civilizational crisis we face will achieve greater public resonance. Public concerns about the health effects of climate change, such as undernutrition and food insecurity, have the potential to accelerate political action in ways that attention to carbon dioxide emissions alone do not.
Responding to the findings and warnings contained in the report, Mike Childs, the head of policy for the Friends of the Earth-UK, said the message from one of the world’s foremost institutions on public health has given powerful new evidence to the argument that "radical action is urgently required" to avoid further climate catastrophe.
"When health professionals shout ’emergency’," Childs said, "politicians everywhere should listen."
Going from diagnosis to prescribing a remedy, the doctors and scientists involved with the report—who equated the human health emergency of climate change with previous physician-led fights against tobacco use and HIV/AIDS—argue the crisis of anthropogenic climate change demands—as a matter of "medical necessity"—the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels (with special emphasis on coal) from the global energy mix. In addition, the authors say their data on global human health support a recommendation for an international carbon price.
"The health community has responded to many grave threats to health in the past," said another commission co-chair, Professor Peng Gong of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. "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."
The Commission argues that human health would vastly improve in a less-polluted world free from fossil fuels. "Virtually everything that you want to do to tackle climate change has health benefits," said Dr. Costello. "We’re going to cut heart attacks, strokes, diabetes."
The following video, produced by the Commission and released alongside the report, also explains:
As Wang and Horton conclude in their remarks, "Climate change is the defining challenge of our generation. Health professionals must mobilize now to address this challenge and protect the health and well-being of future generations."
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Photo (2000) from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia’s national science agency. "CSIRO scientists estimate that the gases released by savanna burning make up 2 percent of Australia’s contribution to the Greenhouse Effect. Although it may be possible to change burning practices to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, this reduction would be small because of the high frequency of natural fires in northern Australia." Via Wikimedia Commons.