Tom Burke: The debate must focus on the human cost

Between 150 and 200 million people could be displaced by rising sea levels by 2050

The doctors are right about the scale of the health catastrophe that will result from a failure to deal with climate change. So far, the public debate on climate has focused mainly on the science and the economics. We have been made very aware of what dealing with climate change might do to business, and nothing like aware enough about what failing to deal with it will do to people.

The recent publication of The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis by the Global Humanitarian Forum has brought this issue into much clearer focus. It found that climate change already causes some 300,000 deaths a year and seriously affects 325 million people. It concluded that four billion people were vulnerable to climate change and half a billion at extreme risk. The number of people permanently displaced by rising sea levels, floods and droughts could reach 150 to 200 million by 2050.

The most dramatic effects of climate change on health are those that result directly from extreme weather events. The Forum's report estimated that by 2030 the health of some 660 million people might be seriously affected by natural disasters. This is almost twice the number of people expected to suffer from diabetes by then.

As the doctors point out, other health impacts will arise from changes in the distribution or frequency of occurrence of disease carriers. A third set of climate impacts affecting health arise from the infrastructure disruptions generated by a changing climate. Extreme weather events not only do direct harm to people, they also destroy or prevent access to hospitals and clinics.

The displacement and conflict resulting from loss of food or clean water cause not only physical harm, but also much mental distress – as yet a much overlooked aspect of the health effects of climate change.

The doctors are also right to emphasise the importance of the politics. Tackling climate change successfully is well within the envelope of our engineering and economic competence. Politics is the art of the possible. The art of political leadership is to expand the realm of the possible.

If the grim prospect outlined by the doctors is to be avoided, what is needed between now and Copenhagen is much more than politics as usual. The political leaders assembling in New York and Pittsburgh in the next two weeks must now launch a political surge on climate change.

Tom Burke is a founding director of E3G and a visiting professor at Imperial and University Colleges, London