Climate change is harming our health – urgent action is required

This article was originally published on the New Internationalist website, and can be found here.

Protesters on the London People's Climate March, 21st September 2014. Photo/Antonio Acuna
Protesters on the London People’s Climate March, 21st September 2014. Photo/Antonio Acuna

Tomorrow, over 120 world leaders, including Barack Obama and David Cameron, will gather in New York for a UN summit on climate change. The event, called by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, comes in anticipation of formal negotiations in Paris next year.

Yet discussion about climate change isn’t limited to the work of world leaders. Sunday saw the largest climate change protest in world history, with over 2,800 events held in 166 countries. The largest, taking place in New York, was attended by over 300,000 people. Public concern about climate change is palpable, and feelings are going ever stronger, as more people demand action from world leaders.

This is not just an issue of scale; there has also been a shift in terms of the make-up of campaigns. A climate change protest like the one on Sunday would’ve once been the preserve of minority fringe groups, concerned primarily with conservation and the protection of endangered species. However, as scientists reveal just how damaging climate change is likely to be, campaigners are uniting in response to arguably more pressing, immediate threats to humanity. Most notably, the risks that climate change poses to global public health.

This isn’t to say that dangers concerning endangered species and their habitats should be ignored. However, when pressure groups routinely brand their campaigning efforts in such a context, we shouldn’t forget that climate change isn’t just an abstract threat to faraway polar bears and scenic glaciers. Human health is also at risk, and such knowledge should act as a strong incentive for our world leaders to pledge action.

The opinion that climate change threatens human health isn’t a contentious one; the medical community are clear on the risk it poses. Prestigious research journals including Science and the Lancet have dedicated entire editions to the topic, including evidence which details just how severe the impact is likely to be.

The risks to human health are multi-faceted. We’re all aware of the immediate dangers posed by extreme weather events such as hurricanes and flooding. But these events leave long-term devastation to health which persists long after the news teams and camera crews have left. Indeed, the World Health Organisation responded to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year by vaccinating thousands of children after fears regarding the spread of diseases including Polio and Measles.

And the threat of infectious disease isn’t just a distant problem for so-called “developing” countries; the U.S.’s Hurricane Katrina saw a rise in the number of Vibrio bacteria – the organisms capable of causing diseases such as cholera. It’s clear that even the world’s most sophisticated healthcare systems are likely to be insufficient in resisting the effects of man-made climate change.

Rising global temperatures also threaten global health in other ways. Medical experts predict that changes in climate will widen the reach of insect vectors carrying diseases such as malaria and Dengue fever. Indeed, research already shows that changing temperatures have contributed to the spread of malaria to new locations over the last two decades. Another report even estimated that strains of malaria may be re-established in the UK by 2050.

The direct health effects of rising temperatures are also worth considering. This threat is especially apparent in areas where the temperature reaches above the international standard for safe work activity. For instance, in Australia, the number of days that breach this threshold is expected to increase from around 5 to 39 days per year.

Rising temperatures are also likely to affect areas where heat doesn’t traditionally pose a health risk. This may sound extreme, but it’s worth remembering that a 2003 heatwave across Europe claimed over 35,000 lives in France alone – a worrying statistic considering the extent to which global temperatures are predicted to rise within the next century.

Climate change also threatens nutrition, due to its effects on crop yields and fish supplies, a source which over a billion people depend on. The consequences of inaction in this area also mounts significant health challenges; without adaptation it’s predicted that the number of malnourished children under the age of five will rise by 20 million by 2050.

There is, of course, significant inequity in these effects. The communities likely to suffer most from the consequences of climate change are those which have contributed the least in terms of fossil fuel consumption.

The medical community are clear about the threat of climate change, and are urging action from world leaders ahead of the UN summit this week. Among the protestors on Sunday were medical professionals, including representatives from the British Medical Association. And they’re not alone. Researchers from University College London have described climate change as “the biggest global-health threat of the 21st century,” while the UN’s own World Health Organisation has also recognised the issue as a significant healthcare challenge, having held a conference on the topic just last month.

Such universal consensus from the medical community is rare and disturbing. Campaigners should be forthcoming with such evidence – it may prove reckless and naïve to focus campaigns solely on abstract arguments regarding conservation and habitation. There are practical reasons for this too. A recent study found that presenting climate change as a public health issue provoked a stronger emotional response among members of the public who were otherwise disengaged or dismissive of the issue. Such evidence suggests that discussing the health consequences of climate change could incentivise greater action among both the public and world leaders.

This action is important. The effects of climate change are not inevitable, hence why Ban Ki-moon is striving for nations to agree to bolder measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, a recent report by leading economists described how measures to tackle climate change were “affordable,” alongside economic growth. It may well be too late to avoid climate change entirely, but nonetheless, steps can be taken to severely limit the extent of its consequences.

At the UN summit this week, world leaders have a choice; to pledge bold reforms to deal with climate change now, or to simply wait for its devastating consequences. Historically, public health measures have proved the overused but well-established axiom; that prevention is better than cure. The global health threat of climate change should be no exception.


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