Steps to combat climate change can lead to immediate public health benefits say doctors

The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change has published a report titled, ‘The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: from 25 years of inaction to a global transformation for public health.

The Lancet Countdown 2017 report tracks progress on the relationship between human health and climate change, and associated implications for governments’ commitments under the Paris Agreement.  The study tracks 40 indicators across five areas: climate change impacts, exposures and vulnerability; adaptation planning and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co-benefits; economics and finance; and public and political engagement.

In an op-ed, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa and The Lancet Editor-in-Chief Richard Horton note that many of the steps taken to combat climate change can lead to immediate public health benefits.

31 October 2017: The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change has published a report titled, ‘The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: from 25 years of inaction to a global transformation for public health.’ It describes how climate change is impacting public health, and finds that reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can mitigate health risks.

The report aims to inform decision-making and accelerate the policy response to climate change. It tracks progress on the relationship between human health and climate change, and associated implications for commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change. The study builds on the work of the 2015 Lancet Commission, which concluded that anthropogenic climate change threatens to undermine gains in public health over the last 50 years, and that a comprehensive response to climate change is “the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.”

The Lancet Countdown’s 2017 report concludes that the human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible, and the delayed response to climate change over the past 25 years has jeopardized human life and livelihoods.

The report tracks 40 indicators across five areas: climate change impacts, exposures and vulnerability, which disproportionately affect the most vulnerable; adaptation planning and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co-benefits; economics and finance; and public and political engagement, including with health professionals who help ensure that the health benefits of action on climate change are understood and realized. The report concludes that the human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible, and the delayed response to climate change over the past 25 years has jeopardized human life and livelihoods. It also finds that the past five years have seen an accelerated response, and, in 2017, momentum has been building across a number of sectors.

The Lancet Countdown’s annual reports help quantify public costs in order to drive more ambitious climate action and simultaneously improve health. [The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change Report] [Lancet Countdown 2017 Webpage] [Lancet Countdown News Story]

In an op-ed that discusses the report’s findings, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa and The Lancet Editor-in-Chief Richard Horton describe how: changing weather patterns are transforming the transmission patterns of infectious diseases, resulting in outbreaks of malaria, dengue fever, cholera, tick-born encephalitis and West Nile virus; the allergy season is getting longer and allergen levels higher; Lyme disease is spreading; and unpredictable precipitation patterns and higher temperatures are reducing crop yields, leading to increased malnourishment and nutrition deficiencies. They explain that while the health community has made progress in addressing the spread and sources of infectious disease, and in combatting malnutrition and hunger, climate change could undermine this progress. They note that many of the steps taken to combat climate change can lead to immediate public health benefits, such as reducing fine particulate matter and local air pollution in cities. [Op-ed: Combatting Climate Change Brings Many Health Benefits]

Climate Change Effects On People’s Health

At a global level, the number of weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s, resulting in an enormous amount of death.

"Rising temperatures and altered precipitation patterns will likely decrease the production of staple foods, particularly in the poorest African countries. This will result in increases in malnutrition and under nutrition –particularly among children-, which currently cause 3.5 million deaths every year."

“Rising temperatures and altered precipitation patterns will likely decrease the production of staple foods, particularly in the poorest African countries. This will result in increases in malnutrition and under nutrition –particularly among children-, which currently cause 3.5 million deaths every year.” ( Photo: UK Department for International Development/flickr/cc)

The recent natural catastrophic events in the United States and Puerto Rico -which may be related to or worsened by climate change- call attention to the effects this phenomenon has on human health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO,) the warming and precipitation trends associated with climate change claim over 150,000 lives annually. It is possible that the costs of this phenomenon will increase with time –both in lives as well as in economics- underscoring the need for more effective approaches to this problem.

The rate of global warming has accelerated over the last few decades and, as a result, sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting and precipitation patterns are changing. As we have recently seen in the Caribbean and North America, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more intense, and so have been the consequences on the lives of every population in nature.

People’s health is the result of factors such as genetic make-up, nutrition, level of activity, social milieu, economic status, and education among other factors. In addition to those, there are other determinants of health such as clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, secure shelter and access to health care, all of which are affected by climate change.

Although climate change may bring some localized benefits, such as fewer deaths in winter and increased food production in some regions as a result of temperature increase, its effects on health are mostly negative. They include infectious and allergic diseases as well as mental health problems caused by moving people out of their homes and, in most cases, placing them into much more precarious living conditions.

At a global level, the number of weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s, resulting in an enormous amount of deaths (some estimated indicate over 100,000 deaths per year), which occur mostly in developing countries. Rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions not only destroy homes but also affect medical facilities and other health and social services. Floods contaminate freshwater supplies, increase the risk of water-borne diseases, and create breeding ground for mosquitoes, with their considerable disease-carrying capacity.

Malaria, which is transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes, and kills almost one million people every year –mainly African children under five years old-, is strongly influenced by climate. And so is the Aedes mosquito vector of dengue, a most debilitating disease. An estimated 390 million dengue infections occur worldwide each year, with about 96 million resulting in illness. It is estimated that the number of people affected by dengue will increase substantially in the next few decades.

Rising temperatures and altered precipitation patterns will likely decrease the production of staple foods, particularly in the poorest African countries. This will result in increases in malnutrition and under nutrition –particularly among children-, which currently cause 3.5 million deaths every year. A United Nations (UN) panel on climate change reported that, over all, global warming could reduce agricultural production by as much as two percent each decade for the rest of the century, while population will grow to 9.6 billion in 2050, from 7.2 billion today.

Higher temperatures increase ground-level ozone concentrations and direct lung injuries and more serious respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Climate change will also lengthen the transmission seasons of important vector-borne diseases and modify their geographic range, according to WHO. Disease migration responds to complex dynamics, of which temperature is one more factor.

Although all kinds of populations are affected by climate change some groups such as children, older people and the poor are more vulnerable. Countries with weak health infrastructure and beset by economic problems will be the least able to respond with adequate assistance, a situation starkly seen now in Puerto Rico.

Even if many actions can be carried out at the individual level, it is necessary to strengthen the awareness of governments about the seriousness of the situation and the urgency to create adequate mechanisms to respond to this challenge. Otherwise, we will ignore the damage at our own peril.

César Chelala

Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a
winner of several journalism awards.