Climate change is a ‘medical emergency,’ report suggests

23 Jun

A new report has revealed that climate change could have catastrophic implications for public health, both directly and indirectly. Fighting climate change, however, represents the greatest global health opportunity of the century.

Factory emitting clouds of pollution.
The Commission reports that reducing carbon emissions is good not just for the planet but for global health as well.

The report is the work of a major international research project and is published in The Lancet.

Co-chair of the Commission, Prof. Anthony Costello, Director of the University College London (UCL) Institute for Global Health in the UK, states that climate change has the potential to reverse the health gains from economic development that have been made in recent decades.

“However, 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,” he states.

The 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change is a multidisciplinary collaboration between academics, scientists, engineers, policy experts and medical scholars from Europe and China, aiming to assess the impact of climate change and potential policy responses.

Climate change leads to more intense and frequent extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, flood and droughts that can directly impact on health. However, the Commission believes that the indirect effects of climate change on food security, water and extreme climatic events such as storms are likely to have the biggest impact on global health.

Flooding and drought can compromise food production, making the availability of food and water uncertain and potentially leading to malnutrition.

The Commission also suggests that vector-borne diseases will expand their reach due to changes in climate conditions allowing for the proliferation of vectors and the movement of people involuntarily from areas affected by climate change. Air polluting carbon emissions that are behind changes in the climate are associated with certain respiratory diseases.

But while the Commission reports that climate change has a disastrous effect on global public health, many of the proposed ways to tackle the problem will have positive co-benefits for those helping to reduce emissions as well.

‘An opportunity to improve human health’

Reducing the global consumption of fossil fuels necessitates various lifestyle changes. Walking and cycling instead of using motor vehicles not only reduces carbon emissions but reduces the prevalence of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke.

And in reducing emissions, the prevalence of respiratory diseases caused by airborne pollutants also decreases.

Consumption of red meat, whose mass production is harmful to the environment, would also have to be reduced. In turn, many diets that are over-reliant on this form of food would become more balanced and, therefore, healthier.

In order for the global situation to improve, the Commission proposes an action plan in which an organization is set up that regularly reports on global health, climate change and what progress has been made in reducing emissions and creating sustainable health systems.

One of the report’s main editors, Maria Nilsson from the Division of Epidemiology and Global Health at UmeĆ„ University, Sweden, says that a strong international consensus is needed to create a global economy in which carbon emissions are minimized.

“This in turn presents an opportunity to improve human health,” she adds. “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.”

Prof. Peng Gong, co-chair of the Commission from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, believes that the health community has come together successfully to tackle similarly grave threats in the past.

“It took on entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry and led the fight against HIV/AIDS,” he states. “Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to human and environmental health of our generation.”

The findings of the Commission will be discussed during talks at meetings linked to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year.

Recently, Medical News Today reported on a study finding that global warming is unlikely to reduce the number of cold-related deaths that occur during the winter months.

Written by James McIntosh