New Lancet study shows it’s time to take our medicine on climate change

| 31st October 2017
Air pollution is one of the health impacts of high carbon economies, (c) Petter Rudwall
Air pollution is one of the health impacts of high carbon economies, (c) Petter Rudwall
A major new study reveals that climate change may be a global medical emergency far bigger than we previously thought. But the authors also see signs that world may be starting to wake up to the danger, reports JOE WARE
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.

When we think about the impacts of climate change it's often melting glaciers, stranded polar bears or tropical hurricanes that most readily spring to mind.

But a new study published today in The Lancet medical journal suggests that global warming is fundamentally a health crisis on a global scale. The findings are stark.

Between 2000 and 2016, the number of people exposed to heatwave events has increased by approximately 125 million.

Need to migrate

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 percent decline in global wheat yields and 10 percent fall in rice yields for each additional 1 °C rise in global temperature.

A 9.4 percent increase in the vectorial capacity for the transmission of Dengue due to climate trends since 1990. With 50 to 100 million infections of Dengue estimated to occur each year, this will exacerbate the spread of the world's most rapidly expanding disease.

- The world has seen a 46 percent global increase in weather related disasters since 2000. This contributed to $129 US billion of economic losses caused by climate related events in 2016 alone. 99% of losses in low-income countries are currently uninsured.

- More than one billion people globally will be faced with a need to migrate within ninety years, due to a rise in sea level caused by ice shelf collapse, unless necessary action is taken.

This report is no half-baked effort from a campaign group: 26 major institutions contributed including the likes of the World Bank, World Health Organisation, University College London and Beijing's Tsinghua University.

Warning signs

Professor Hugh Montgomery, co-chair of the report and Director of the Institute for Human Health and Performance at University College London, didn't pull any punches in summarising the predicament.

He said: "We are only just beginning to feel the impacts of climate change. Any small amount of resilience we may take for granted today will be stretched to breaking point sooner than we may imagine."

It's particularly cruel that most of these impacts are being felt first and worst in the developing countries that did the least to create this health horror show, and why it's so shameful that the Daily Express, among others, is calling for the mere 0.7 percent of our national income we spend on international aid be clawed back.

As the first nation in the world to industrialise, Britain should be proud to lead the way in helping those suffering from the health impacts of climate change.

These finds should be a wakeup call to politicians meeting in Bonn, Germany, next week for this year's UN climate summit, but the report highlights some signs that we may already be starting to heed the warning signs.

Health opportunity

The study authors write: "Although progress has been historically slow, there is evidence of a recent turning point, with transitions in sectors that are crucial to public health reorienting towards a low-carbon world."

Global coal consumption appears to have peaked in 2013 and is now declining. This coincides with the increasing decarbonisation of national electricity systems.

We've also reached an important crossover with global employment in renewable energy at 9·8 million people last year, compared to jobs in fossil fuel extraction trending downwards to 8·6 million.

The rapid growth of electric vehicles will also lead to drastic improvements in urban air quality. The report also reveals that there has been an uptick of 78 percent in global newspaper coverage of the health impacts of climate change since 2007, and scientific studies on the subject have tripled over the same period. It would make sense that this public awareness would only increase as the impacts become more obvious.

While climate change may be our greatest health challenge, the report authors point out that it is also our greatest global health opportunity.

Professor Anthony Costello, report co-chair and a Director at the World Health Organization said: "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."

Christiana Figueres, the UN's former climate chief who helped coordinate the Paris Agreement said political leaders meeting in Bonn next week needed to follow doctors' orders: "When a doctor tells us we need to take better care of our health we pay attention and it's important that governments do the same."

This Author

Joe Ware is a journalist and writer at Christian Aid and a New Voices contributor to The Ecologist. He is on twitter at @wareisjoe.


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