Climate InFact: Can climate change affect your health?

  1. What are the health effects of climate change?
  2. What solutions can help mitigate climate change related health impacts?
  3. How would tackling climate change help the NHS?
Joe Middleton
Tuesday 09 November 2021 00:50
<p>A smog-filled Lahore, Pakistan</p>
<p>A smog-filled Lahore, Pakistan</p>(AFP via Getty Images)

One of the lesser-known consequences of the climate crisis is the impact that rising temperatures will have on our health.

Just weeks before the Cop26 climate conference started scientists and medical professionals warned that unless urgent action is taken to prevent climate change it could have wide-ranging consequences for health outcomes.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report arguing that the burning of fossil fuels “is killing us” and that climate change “is the biggest single threat to humanity”.

The report added that climate change is leading to death and illness from increasingly extreme weather such as heatwaves and floods, disruptions to food systems, increases in disease spread and mental health issues.

In Canada, this week a doctor suffering from breathing issues has been the first patient worldwide suffering from ‘climate change’, as his symptoms were due to poor air quality and heatwaves.

Below we explore the impact of climate change on global health.

  1. What are the health effects of climate change?

    From extreme heat to worsening hunger and water shortages, accelerating climate change will have a far reaching impact on health, experts have said.

    The WHO estimates that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause around 250, 000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.

    A lot of these deaths are linked to the occurrence of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, flooding and storms, that disrupt food systems and also cause various illnesses.

    Andy Haines, a professor of environmental change and public health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told Cop26 that climate change is already driving diverse health threats around the world.

    For example, the ranges of insect-carried diseases such as malaria and dengue are altering as weather patterns shift, and heat deaths are swiftly rising, with over a third of those recorded from 1990-2018 attributed to climate change, he said.

    The rising toll of wildfires, floods, droughts and extreme heat have hit the headlines in recent years and have a torrid impact on our physical health.

    But these events are also having “really devastating effects” on mental health, alongside worries among many people about the future under worsening climate change, Haines added.

    As permafrost melts in the fast-warming Arctic, it could even expose “Methuselah organisms” - long frozen and potentially deadly bacteria and viruses, he said.

    “As we release these we don’t know what is going to happen to human health,” he added.

    But some health risks connected to climate change are already well known. Air pollution, much of it connected to the use of fossil fuels, kills about 7 million people a year.

    Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose nine-year-old daughter Ella died in London in 2013 of a severe asthma attack that coroners attributed to “excess air pollution”, told conference participants that “breathing clean air is a human right”.

    And in places such as New Delhi, Beijing and Lahore, impenetrable smogs have descended upon the cities, causing severe breathing problems to residents. The root cause of smog is often the burning of fossil fuels.

  2. What solutions can help mitigate climate change related health impacts?

    A number of changes have already been proposed at Cop26, including making cycling and walking easier in cities, to altering diets and ramping up renewable energy.

    Adding more trees and water-absorbing green areas of lower income areas of cities could be actioned to address inequalities, flooding and heat risks.

    “The solutions are the same for the climate, our health and biodiversity,” said Rayan Kassem, West Asia regional director for Youth4Nature, a green non-profit focused on climate and nature solutions.

    The aforementioned WHO report suggested that governments need to commit to a green, healthy recovery from the pandemic, making sure efforts are aligned to the goals of the global Paris Agreement on tackling climate change.

    It adds that the recovery should focus on 100% green stimulus spending and end fossil fuel subsidies. It also calls for for action to address inequalities at the root of the current climate and health crises.

    The report lays out further recommendations to deal with climate change, including promoting sustainable and healthy cities, restoring nature, and moving to an economy based more on wellbeing.

  3. How would tackling climate change help the NHS?

    The NHS could save £17 billion over 20 years if ministers push for a change towards greener transport, according to a report published by the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society.

    The authors state that if city residents of England and Wales walked an average of 1km more and cycled an average of 3km further each day, the number of patients suffering heart disease, strokes and diabetes due to inactivity would be dramatically reduced.

    They said this would alleviate pressure on the healthcare system, saving it the projected £17 billion, while also reducing pollution levels as more people opt to walk instead of drive.

    Professor Joanna Haigh CBE told a press briefing in mid-October she hoped the report she co-chaired would provide “significant motivation for Government action on climate change“.

    The report gives the example of reducing deaths from air pollution, which currently causes up to 36,000 premature deaths a year, as health issue which should incentivise the Government to phase out fossil fuels.

    Better insulating in homes would also prevent deaths linked to low temperatures - which account for up to 50,000 fatalities a year, the authors said.

    Professor Sir Andy Haines, who also co-chaired the report, said tackling climate change is likely to reduce health inequalities.

    He said: “Our report gives many ‘win-win’ examples of actions that would have a positive impact on health and the climate.

    “Many of the measures, such as improved public transport access and energy efficient housing, could also help decrease health inequalities.”

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