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The Lancet: Climate change threatens to undermine the last half century of health gains

Posted on 23 June 2015

The threat to human health from climate change is so great that it could undermine the last fifty years of gains in development and global health, according to a major new Commission, published in The Lancet.

Climate change. Credit: Edward Musiak

The potentially catastrophic risk to human health posed by climate change has been underestimated, say the authors.

And while the technologies and finance required to address the problem can be made available, global political will to implement them is lacking.

However, the Commission’s report, which included input from an academic at the University of York, says the threat from climate change also represents one of the greatest opportunities to improve global health this century.

The Commission concludes that a strong international consensus is essential to move the world to a global low-carbon economy and proposes the formation of a new global independent body on climate change and health.

The Lancet set up the Commission on Health and Climate Change to examine the health impacts of climate change and detail the policy responses needed to protect the health of current and future generations.

 Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels – the primary driver of climate change – are rising beyond worst-case scenarios and the world is still waiting for international agreement on effective action.

Professor Hilary Graham,  from the University  of York’s Department of Health Sciences,  is a Commission member and contributed to the report’s emphasis on civic engagement and public opinion in pressing for action on climate change.

She said: “The Lancet Commission’s report makes clear that climate change is damaging health today – and is casting a long shadow over the future for our children and grandchildren. 

“But its central message is optimistic. Taking action now with the technologies we already have can help us build a healthier and more equitable world’.

The report shows that the direct health impacts of climate change come from the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, especially heat waves, floods, droughts and storms.  Indirect impacts come from changes in infectious disease patterns, air pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, involuntary migration, displacement and conflicts.

Commission co-Chair Professor Anthony Costello, Director of the University College London (UCL) Institute for Global Health, UK, added:  “Climate change has the potential to reverse the health gains from economic development that have been made in recent decades – not just through the direct effects on health from a changing and more unstable climate, but through indirect means such as increased migration and reduced social stability.  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.”

There are numerous ways in which action on climate change brings immediate health gains – burning fewer fossil fuels reduces respiratory diseases, and active transport (walking and cycling) cut pollution and road traffic accidents, and reduces rates of obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke.  There are also health benefits from changes to diet which might arise from a concerted effort to tackle climate change, such as eating less red meat.

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