Climate Change Is Century’s Biggest Opportunity to Improve Global Health, Say Experts

Cutting carbon emissions would reap many health benefits, while failing to do so may lead to a long-term medical crisis.

A woman was treated for heat stroke last month in Karachi, Pakistan, where a heat wave has killed more than 400 people. (Photo: Athar Hussain/Reuters)

Jun 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

A new report has ditched the gloom-and-doom predictions about climate change in favor of a refreshingly positive message: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will make us healthier and save us a lot of money.

“Tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century,” concluded the report, released on Tuesday by the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change. It details the direct—and sometimes surprisingly indirect—effects of climate change and how taking action to blunt those effects would help sustain and significantly improve human health.

The world must take immediate action to slash carbon pollution, the report said, to keep the temperature gain between now and 2100 to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

At the current rate of global carbon emissions, average temperatures will rise by as much as 4.7 to 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. In these conditions, climate change will become a medical emergency that “threatens to undermine the last half century of gains in development and global health,” the commission found.

So, Why Should You Care? Climate change is already harming human health directly by causing more extreme heat waves, as well as more floods, drought, and intense storms. Indirect impacts include increased air pollution, less secure food supply, malnutrition, population displacement, and mental illness. Global warmingdriven ecosystem changes and biodiversity loss are also causing the spread of infectious diseases such as Lyme disease, schistosomiasis, hantavirus, and West Nile virus into new parts of the world.

Coping with these impacts is expensive. The United States alone spent $14 billion in health-related costs from just six climate changerelated events between 2002 and 2009, according to a 2011 study.

Curbing climate change by lowering fossil fuel pollution, however, would “reduce pressures on national health budgets,” the new study noted, “delivering potentially large cost savings, and enable investments in stronger, more resilient health systems.”

It will be vital to figure out the economic benefits of “avoided burden of disease, reduced health-care costs, and enhanced economic productivity,” the commission said, to calculate the true costs of not taking strong action to limit climate change.

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Among the direct health benefits of cutting fossil fuel emissions, air pollutants that cause or worsen respiratory disease would decrease, while conversion to “clean” stoves and fuels in the developing world “will not only protect the climate from black carbon, but also cut deaths from household air pollution—a major killer in low income countries,” the report said.

Black carbon, commonly known as soot, is second only to carbon dioxide in terms of the heat it traps in the atmosphere.

Steps to rein in climate change would also yield indirect benefits like encouraging “active transportation,” such as bicycles, over fuel-burning vehicles. This would reduce obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, as well as injuries and deaths from motor vehicle traffic accidents, stated the report.

The commission offered 10 recommendations “to accelerate action in the next five years,” including more research on climate change and public health; phasing out coal-fired power to “reduce the health burden of particulate matter…thus yielding immediate gains for society”; encouraging cities to develop energy-efficient buildings and provide greater access to active transportation and green spaces; and reaching an international agreement to support less-developed countries in switching over to a low-carbon economy.

The steps societies need to take to limit global warming won’t be easy, said John Filippelli, director of the clean air and sustainability division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but they are achievable.

“I’ve been in the environmental business for 37 years, and I’ve seen things get done,” Filippelli said during a briefing at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City about the report. “Lead was removed from gasoline, and there was a dramatic improvement in the health of children.”

Likewise, an international agreement to curb use of fluorocarbons is successfully reducing the hole in the atmosphere’s ozone layer, he said, while U.S. regulations to cut the sulfur dioxide in power plant emissions have helped alleviate acid rain, saving millions of acres of forests.

“Of course, climate change is much bigger, and it requires global action,” Filippelli said. “But what is the alternative?”