Climate Change and Health

World’s leaders reach historic accord, but climate change is already affecting our health

The agreement reached in Paris at the COP21 Climate Change talks in December provides hope and impetus for a new chapter in the fight against global warming and for human health and wellbeing on the planet.

The Paris Agreement on climate change is an historic accord for mankind. Bringing 195 countries together and achieving any mutual agreement, let alone one with relatively ambitious goals, is remarkable and speaks volumes for the new realisation by the leaders of nations of the desperate and dire future we face if nothing is done to curb emissions from fossil fuels. For 25 years, climate change campaigners have been trying to make their voices heard. The world’s leaders have finally listened. We now trust they will fulfil their obligations.

Nonetheless, the negative impact of climate change is already being felt in many areas of people’s lives, such as shelter, food and health.

According to WHO estimates, climate change is already causing tens of thousands of deaths every year – from shifting patterns of disease, from extreme weather events, such as heatwaves and floods, and from the degradation of air quality, food and water supplies, and sanitation. For example, extreme high air temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, particularly among elderly people. In the heat wave of summer 2003 in Europe, for example, more than 70,000 excess deaths were recorded, according to the WHO. Globally, the number of reported weather- related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. Every year, these disasters result in over 60,000 deaths and many more injuries, mainly in developing countries.

Increasingly variable rainfall patterns are affecting the supply of fresh water. A lack of safe water compromises hygiene and increases the risk of diarrhoeal disease, which kills approximately 760,000 children aged under 5 every year.

Floods are also increasing in frequency and intensity. Floods contaminate freshwater supplies, heighten the risk of water- borne diseases, and create breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes. They also cause drownings and physical injuries, damage homes and disrupt the supply of medical services. In 2012, WHO estimated 7 million people died from air pollution-related diseases, making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk.

Not only are ways to combat climate change already known and well-documented, they can bring important health gains. As WHO’s new series of climate change and health country profiles illustrate, investments in low-carbon development, clean renewable energy, and strengthening climate resilience, are also investments in health.

Strengthening health resilience to climate risks, including measures such as earlywarning systems for more frequent and severe heatwaves, and protection of water, sanitation, and hygiene services against floods and droughts, would ensure that recent progress against climate-sensitive diseases, is not slowed or reversed, says the WHO.

Climate change agreement is also significant public health treaty – says Chan

At the Paris Climate Change talks in December – COP21 – Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director- General, addressed a high-level event on ‘Why the climate change agreement is critical to public health’. This is what she said.

Climate change is the defining issue for the 21st century.

In the run-up to COP-21, countries have made important commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and scale up adaptation to climate change. But more needs to be done. As many have noted, the world is recklessly late in agreeing to take action.

The stakes are high. WHO estimates that climate change is already causing tens of thousands of deaths every year. These deaths arise from more frequent epidemics of diseases like cholera, the vastly expanded geographical distribution of diseases like dengue, and from extreme weather events, like heatwaves and floods.

Climate change degrades air quality, reduces food security, and compromises water supplies and sanitation. These consequences are likewise deadly.

WHO estimates that more than 7 million people die each year from diseases related to air pollution, making it the world’s largest single environmental risk to health. Experts predict that, by 2030, climate change will be causing an additional 250,000 deaths each year from malaria, diarrhoeal disease, heat stress, and undernutrition alone. The heaviest burden will fall on children, women, and the poor, widening already unacceptable gaps in health outcomes.

Health has critical evidence, and positive arguments, to bring to the climate talks. The agreement under negotiation is not just a treaty for saving the planet from severe, pervasive, and irreversible damage. It is also a significant public health treaty, with a huge potential to save lives worldwide.

If the right commitments are made, efforts to combat climate change will produce an environment with cleaner air, more abundant and safer freshwater and food, and more effective and fair systems for social protection. Healthier people will be the result.

Existing strategies that work well to combat climate change also bring important health gains. Investments in low-carbon development, clean renewable energy, and greater climate resilience are investments in better health.

Implementing and enforcing higher standards for vehicle emissions and engine efficiency can reduce emissions of shortlived climate pollutants, like black carbon and methane. Doing so could save around 2.4 million lives a year by 2030 and reduce global warming by about half a degree Celsius by 2050.

Researchers have estimated that reform of global energy subsidies could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 20%, cut premature air pollution deaths by more than half, and raise government revenues by nearly $3 trillion.

Measures such as early-warning systems for heatwaves and the protection of water, sanitation, and hygiene services against floods and droughts strengthen the resilience of health systems to withstand the shocks of climate change. Doing so safeguards recent progress against climate-sensitive diseases.

WHO is doing its part. For example, WHO, in collaboration with the UNFCCC secretariat and other partners, launched the first set of climate change and health country profiles. The aim is to empower ministers of health and other decision-makers to include health in the climate negotiations. Profiles provide a snapshot of upto- date information about current and future impacts of climate change on human health, and current policy responses in individual countries.

They also illustrate, within the country context, the health benefits that arise from actions to mitigate climate change, like shifting to cleaner energy sources, using public transport, and promoting walking and biking.

Minimizing adverse effects on public health has been part of UNFCCC objectives since the first agreement in 1992. We hope that the current negotiations will fully exploit the opportunity to protect the planet’s most valuable resource, its people.

A ruined planet cannot sustain human lives in good health. A healthy planet and healthy people are two sides of the same coin.

 Date of upload: 13th Jan 2016


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