Climate change is already damaging the health of hundreds of millions of people around the world, according to a major new report.
The “Lancet Countdown” study, released by leading medical journal The Lancet, revealed four key ways that climate change is having a serious affect on human health, including heatwaves, the spread of deadly diseases, air pollution, and extreme weather conditions leading to malnutrition.
“The human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible — affecting the health of populations around the world today,” according to the report, which is based on 40 indicators of climate and health.
“Climate change is happening and it’s a health issue for millions worldwide,” said Professor Anthony Costello, of the WHO and co-chair of the group behind the report, in a statement.
The research is the result of a collaboration between 24 institutions around the world, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), the World Bank, and the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), as well as many universities.
The first of the factors that the report highlights is heatwaves, which are particularly dangerous for the world’s more vulnerable people. One worrying statistic cited in the report revealed that the number of people over 65 who have been exposed to extreme heat rose by 125 million between 2000 and 2016.
“There is no crystal ball gazing here, these are the actual observations,” Professor Peter Cox, at the University of Exeter, told the Guardian. He said the 70,000 deaths that resulted from Europe’s 2003 heatwave looked small compared to what could happen in the long-term.
Meanwhile, the scientists reported that global warming also appears to be accelerating the spread of deadly diseases, such as dengue fever, the world’s most rapidly spreading disease. Infections have doubled in each decade since 1990, and now reach up to 100 million infections a year, according to the Guardian.
Air pollution is another concerning factor, causing millions of early deaths each year. The report particularly highlights the 800,000 annual deaths related solely to coal burning.
Globally, people living in 71% of the 2,971 cities in the WHO’s air pollution database are being exposed to air that is too dangerous to breathe, according to the WHO’s air quality test.
The test concerns fine, sooty particles — known as PM2.5s — which are found in the air, and have been linked to heart disease and early death.
Around the world, exposure to these particles has already increased by 11.2% since 1990. In the UK alone, 44 of the 51 towns and cities in the database failed the air quality test — leading to the deaths of about 40,000 Britons every year, according to Dr Toby Hillman, at the Royal College of Physicians.
But perhaps one of the most immediately felt results of climate change is extreme weather, which is damaging crops and leading to the threat of hunger for millions of children. The frequency of weather-related disasters around the world has increased by 46% since 2000.
“Undernutrition is identified as the largest health impact of climate change in the 21st century,” reads the report, stating that the number of undernourished people in 30 countries across Africa and Asia rose to 422 million in 2016 — up from 398 million in 1990.
And Professor Hugh Montgomery, of University College London (UCL), warned that “we are going to see millions more undernourished children” as a result of the loss of crops.
As well as warning about specific factors, the report criticises the slow response by governments around the world, despite previous warnings.
“The delayed response to climate change over the past 25 years has jeopardised human life and livelihoods,” it says, pointing to health crises of recent years as examples of the disastrous effect outbreaks can have on vulnerable populations.
“If governments and the global health community do not learn from the past experiences of HIV/AIDS and the recent outbreaks of Ebola and Zika viruses, another slow response will result in an irreversible and unacceptable cost to human health.”
Since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) began global efforts to tackle climate change in 1992, most of the indicators tracked by the “Lancet Countdown” have “either shown limited progress…or moved in the wrong direction.”
“Most fundamentally,” the report says, “carbon emissions and global temperatures have continued to increase.”
But climate change is not only have a detrimental effect on human health, the report continues.
The total value of economic losses resulting from climate-related events has been increasing since 1990 — totalling $129 billion in 2016, and 99% of these economic losses in low-income countries were uninsured.
This economic loss is partly due to a fall in productivity, caused by adverse weather conditions. Labour productivity among farm workers, for example, fell by 5.3% since between 2000 and 2016, mainly due to hot conditions in nations from India to Brazil.
While the “Lancet Countdown” study didn’t estimate the total number of deaths relating to climate change, the WHO has previously said there could be 250,000 extra deaths a year between 2030 and 2050 because of climate change.
But Costello, one of the authors of the report, said there were “significant glimmers of hope” in the situation, according to a report by Reuters.
“The outlook is challenging, but we still have an opportunity to turn a looming medical emergency into the most significant advance for public health in this century,” he said.
“While progress has been historically slow,” he continued, “there is evidence of a recent turning point, with transitions in sectors that are crucial to public health reorienting towards a low-carbon world”.
He added: “These efforts must be greatly accelerated and sustained in the coming decades to meet the commitments, but recent policy changes and the indicators presented here suggest that the direction of travel is set.”
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