Climate change damaging health of millions 

Posted on 15th November 2017

Climate change is already a significant public health issue and a looming global health emergency, new research shows.

The findings, outlined in The Lancet medical journal, demonstrate the various ways climate change is already affecting the health of people across the planet. Leading doctors, academics and policy professionals from 24 organisations – including the University of Exeter – worked on the report.

“Human health is vulnerable to climate change and associated changes in air quality,” said Professor Peter Cox, from the University of Exeter.

“This vulnerability is exacerbated by economic inequalities and ageing populations.

“Action to halt climate change is a huge opportunity to improve human health and wellbeing.”

According to the report, the current health impacts of climate change include:

  • An average 5.3% fall in productivity for rural labour estimated globally since 2000, as a result of rising temperatures. In 2016 this effectively took more than 920,000 people globally out of the workforce, with 418,000 of them in India alone.
  • Between 2000 and 2016, the number of people exposed to heatwave events increased by approximately 125 million, with a record 175 million people exposed to heatwaves in 2015.
  • Undernutrition is identified as the largest health impact of climate change in the 21st century. Related impacts of climate change on crop production referenced in the report include a 6% decline in global wheat yields and 10% fall in rice yields for each additional 1°C rise in global temperature.
  • Over 803,000 premature and avoidable deaths in 2015 as a result of air pollution across 21 Asian countries.

The authors are clear the necessary response to climate change still provides an opportunity to realise substantial gains in public health.

The potential benefits and opportunities are staggering, including cleaning up the air of polluted cities, delivering more nutritious diets, ensuring energy, food and water security, and alleviating poverty, alongside social and economic inequalities.

The report also includes input from Dr Karyn Morrissey, at the University of Exeter Medical School. She looked at how people who manage cities believe climate change will impact their city and particularly their health systems.

Professor Anthony Costello, co-chair of the Lancet Countdown and a director at the World Health Organization, said: “Climate change is happening and it’s a health issue today for millions worldwide.

“The outlook is challenging, but we still have an opportunity to turn a looming medical emergency into the most significant advance for public health this century.

“As we move in the right direction, we hope for a step-change from governments to tackle the cause and impacts of climate change.

“We need urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The health and economic benefits on offer are huge. The cost of inaction will be counted in preventable loss of life, on a large scale.”

The initiative builds on the work of the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, which concluded that climate change caused by human activity threatens to undermine the last 50 years of gains in public health.

The new research shows this is becoming increasingly clear and the challenges are greater than anticipated.

The findings also show that climate change is affecting the health of all populations.

These impacts are disproportionately felt by communities least responsible for climate change and those who are the most vulnerable in society.

Despite the scale of the challenge, the report – entitled: “From 25 years of inaction to a global transformation for public health” – points to clear reasons for optimism.

Momentum in cutting emissions responsible for climate change is building across a number of sectors, especially energy and transport, with significant benefit for public health to follow.

Notable examples include peak global coal use, with numerous national commitments to phase-out coal power – across Canada, Finland, France, Netherlands, and the UK – the rapid rise of renewable energy, and emerging transformation of transport driven by electric vehicles. These interventions go hand-in-hand with improved air quality and substantial benefits for human health.

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