The heat wave that’s taken the lives of more than 1,200 people in Pakistan this week certainly underscored the human cost of climate change. In Karachi, where temperatures have reached as high as 113 degrees, it’s not difficult to see the link between increased carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and dramatically higher temperatures — not only resulting in dangerous heat waves but other devastating weather events from tornadoes to tsunamis.
But while such tragedy is obvious, the impact of climate change on human health is really much worse than high temperatures, droughts or more frequent storms, as a team of experts report in The Lancet medical journal this week. According to findings, it also means an increased risk of disease, much greater food insecurity, worsening air pollution and many other factors that collectively pose a “catastrophic risk to human health”.
How catastrophic? According to the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate, the threat is so great that it may undermine the last 50 years of progress in human health. In other words, as much as research, technology and investment in public infrastructure and medical treatment have improved health and lengthened average life spans around the world over the last half-century, climate change may have a counter-effect just as significant.
The commission, led by researchers at University College London (UCL) in collaboration with The Lancet, estimates that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events will dramatically increase and that the number of people exposed to extreme rainfall will be four times higher than it was in the 1990s. Exposure to severe drought conditions is expected to triple in some parts of the world, including certain regions of the United States, while thousand-year heat waves — like the one Europe experienced in 2003, which killed 70,000 people — are projected to occur every other year by the 2030s to 2040s under continuing greenhouse gas emissions.
Direct and indirect health threats
The threat to human health comes not just from extreme weather, the report says, but also in changing infectious disease patterns (broadening the range of certain disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes and ticks, for example), in involuntary migration (perhaps spurred by flooding or the collapse of agriculture) and the resulting political upheaval and armed conflicts in countries devastated by global warming. The continued burning of fossil fuels is also directly linked to increased incidence of asthma and other respiratory conditions, heart disease, stroke and cancer, all of which can be life-shortening.
These are not theoretical problems, the commission notes, but are already taking place around the globe as assuredly as Pakistan’s heat wave — and the one that preceded it a month earlier in India. Both events rank among the ten deadliest heat waves in world history.
Researchers also recently determined that global warming and associated drought were key drivers of the ongoing conflict in Syria, marking the first time in history that a war has been explicitly linked to climate change. And according to a recent study by the American Thoracic Society, seven out of 10 doctors reported climate change is contributing to more health problems among their patients.
Fast action is needed
The commission makes it clear that we cannot afford to wait to take action to mitigate the devastating effects of climate change. There are limits to the level and rate of warming humans and other species can adapt to — and at the current rate, global temperature rises expected by the end of the century greatly exceed our adaptive capacity.
Commission Co-Chair Professor Hugh Montgomery, director of the UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance, described climate change as a “medical emergency” that “demands an emergency response, using the technologies available right now.”
Yet the response by the international community — a painfully slow combination of debate and aspiration, like having an annual medical conference instead of pursuing actual treatment or therapy — is hardly what an “emergency” situation requires, Montgomery said.
Tackling climate change would improve health…
It’s easy to become paralyzed in the face of what the Commission describes as “the biggest health threat of this century.” But what is our biggest threat is also our biggest opportunity, the report said.
The Commission says the solutions to this growing health threat lie in making the necessary adaptations — facilitating migration, for instance, or providing for clean water and sanitation in the most vulnerable countries — as well as in addressing the underlying causes of climate change. The report specifically cites the benefits of eliminating the estimated 2,200 coal-fired power plants that are either under construction now or planned for construction around the world.
Improving air quality and burning less fossil fuel could significantly reduce respiratory diseases, the report found, while walking and cycling instead of relying on cars or public transport could cut traffic accidents and reduce obesity, diabetes, stroke, and coronary heart disease rates. 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, the Commission says.
“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,” said Commission co-Chair Professor Anthony Costello, Director of the UCL Institute for Global Health.
…but human nature could stand in the way of global change
But in order to achieve those goals much more needs to be done, whether at international and national levels and also need to include actions from governments and from individual groups and people. “An effective international agreement will be one that supports stronger efforts everywhere and at every level,” the report states.
This commission pointed out though, that the low-carbon future a healthy earth would need, is intricately linked to whether human societies have the will to provide it.
“The difficulty, essentially, is ourselves: the tendency of humans to ignore or discount unpleasant facts or difficult choices, the nature of companies and countries to defend their own rather than collective interests and the narrow, short term horizons of most human institutions, which feed into the difficulties of global negotiations,” the report states.
Ultimately, what’s needed is to tap man’s inherent instinct for self-preservation. Survival requires that humanity turn away from its bad habits — especially from pumping more greenhouse gases into the air — and act in its own long-term interests.