Climate Change a 'Medical Emergency' Posing Major Risks: Experts
International commission says 50 years of global health gains could be undone
MONDAY, June 22, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- The health risks posed by climate change are potentially serious enough to undo 50 years of advancements in global health, according to the findings of a new commission.
"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," said commission co-chair Dr. Anthony Costello, director of the University College London (UCL) Institute for Global Health in England.
But the scientists advised that taking steps to minimize or adapt to climate change, such as reducing air pollution or eating a healthy diet, could have significant health benefits for people around the world.
By making adjustments to climate change now, "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," Costello said in a news release from the journal The Lancet, where this study was published June 22.
Although the funding and technology needed to implement positive changes is available, global political support is lacking as the health risks associated with climate change are largely underestimated, the report stated.
The commission included an international team of European and Chinese scientists, engineers, economists, health officials and policy experts. Their goal was to make a series of recommendations for lawmakers that might help ensure an effective response to climate change.
The greatest threats linked to climate change stem from an increase in extreme weather events, particularly heat waves. Floods, drought and storms also present significant health concerns, the report said.
Climate change also has indirect health implications, the report noted. This includes changes in air pollution, lack of food and malnutrition, forced migration, conflict and changes in infectious disease patterns.
Another commission co-chair stressed the urgency of the situation.
"Climate change is a medical emergency," said Dr. Hugh Montgomery, director of the UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance, in the news release. "It thus demands an emergency response, using the technologies available right now. Under such circumstances, no doctor would consider a series of annual case discussions and aspirations adequate, yet this is exactly how the global response to climate change is proceeding."
The report described several ways to address climate change that it said could have immediate health benefits for people around the world:
- Reducing fossil fuel emissions would cause a decline in lung diseases.
- Walking or biking, instead of driving, could reduce air pollution and the number of car accidents.
- Commuting by foot or bike could also reduce the prevalence of serious chronic health issues such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
- Eating a healthier diet and less red meat in response to climate change could also offer health benefits.
Commission co-chair Peng Gong, from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, said, "The health community has responded to many grave threats to health in the past. It took on entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry, and led the fight against HIV/AIDS. Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to human and environmental health of our generation."
The commission also recommended the creation of a new global independent body with the task of monitoring climate change and global health. This coalition would report every two years on the health effects of climate change, track the progress of policies designed to mitigate climate change and make new suggestions on how to further adapt to climate change and implement low-carbon, sustainable health systems.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides more information on the health effects of climate change.