A changing climate threatens health on all fronts. Climate change and biodiversity collapse are the biggest global health threats of the 21st century.
The world is already 1.06°C to 1.2°C warmer compared with pre-industrial levels, and the harmful effects of this spread across every country and income group, threatening the food, air, water and shelter that society depends on. The health of more vulnerable, marginalised and disempowered people tends to be harmed first and worst.
Just like diet or air pollution, climate influences a whole lot of factors. Climate change makes heatwaves and other extreme weather events more deadly. It also drives changes in weather patterns, making infectious disease more transmissible. It can worsen air pollution as well, leading to respiratory diseases and the loss of lives. Notably, air pollution and climate change often share the same causes (burning of fossil fuels, wildfire smoke, emissions from agriculture, etc.). A recent Harvard led study found that fossil fuel air pollution is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide. Every year nearly 7 million people die from exposure to outdoor and household air pollution.
Integrating health in climate change policies is a major chance to create near-term and local health benefits while also decreasing emissions. Transitioning away from fossil fuels and adopting clean energy could be one of the greatest public health opportunities, combining the positive impacts of reduced emissions and air pollution with increased energy access. The potential cost savings in public health can also offset the costs of climate action. Recent estimates show that climate solutions could cost around USD 25 trillion globally, but the savings are five to six times larger.
Health and climate professionals understand the urgency. There have already been several calls to action in the health community, but more must be done to push for public and political engagement in tackling climate change and health together. In September this year, more than 200 health journals signed an editorial saying that climate change is the biggest threat to public health. According to the most recent report on health and climate change, the 2021 Lancet Countdown, this is a code red for humanity: “Climate change is here and we’re already seeing it damaging human health across the world,” says Anthony Costello, Lancet Countdown executive director.
At the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, we need nations to fully recommit to the 1.5°C target, and we need to see decisive movement towards phasing out fossil fuels. High-income countries need to deliver the climate finance that will let other countries do their part, and we must see them addressing current climate impacts. And it is vital that we see countries commit to more ambitious climate plans that incorporate health equity and societal support. Only this combination of approaches will ensure a more suitable future for all.