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Researchers: Climate Change a Medical Emergency

  • Rosanne Skirble

The impact of climate change is so great that it could undermine the last 50 years of gains in global health. That is the assessment of a new report from the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate, an independent, international and multi-disciplinary research group.

Similar findings were released this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in a major analysis of the health and economic benefits of lowering climate changing emissions.

Weather extremes add to health burden

Nicolas Watts led the Commission report, published in the British journal the Lancet. Speaking to VOA via Skype, Watts said that weather extremes made worse by climate change are potentially catastrophic and unacceptable.

“In terms of drought, we often see corresponding decreases in agricultural productivity, which then in turn has a profound impact on malnutrition, particularly for children,” he said. And with floods, he added, “We often see a rise in the rates of infectious diseases, cholera and diarrheal diseases that happen as a result of a breakdown in sanitation.”

Increasingly, it’s just hotter, which can be deadly. An extreme heatwave in 2003 left 70,000 people dead across Europe. Watts says those sorts of events are expected to increase in intensity and severity as time goes on.

Reducing emissions improves health

The World Health Organization warns that unless dramatic action is taken to reduce global warming emissions by 2030, approximately 250,000 people will die each year from the effects of climate change.

But the Lancet Commission report finds growing evidence that actions to slow climate change are good for global health. Outdoor air pollution is linked to some three million deaths worldwide, 1.2 million in China alone. Watts says a shift from coal-fired power plants to renewable energy can greatly reduce that danger.

“We see immediate declines in hospital admissions and in health care costs, which reduces the burden of already struggling health budgets,” he said.

And a switch to a more active lifestyle that includes cycling and walking decreases emissions and lowers the rates of diabetes and obesity.

Politics aside, global climate treaty is about public health

Among its recommendations, the Commission supports a phase-out of coal power plants, expansion of renewable energy, investment in health systems and a commitment to a strong global climate treaty. World leaders are expected to meet in Paris in December to sign that agreement, and Watts notes – politics and complexities aside – at its core, the treaty is about public health.

“It is about re-imagining and re-understanding climate change as a public health issue," he said. "Most of what you want to do to respond to climate change is good for public health, and it is actually a much brighter future.”

Watts hopes the Commission’s report helps unite health care professionals behind a global treaty that can better respond to the health risks of climate change.

“What is good for the planet,” he pointed out, “is good for patient care.”