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Climate change to wipe out health gains

Published Jun 23, 2015

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Climate change could wipe out all the health gains made in the last 50 years and urgent steps need to be taken to prevent further increases in global temperature.

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This is according to the findings of the Health and Climate Change Commission set up by the British medical journal, The Lancet, which were released on Tuesday.

Last year was the hottest on record and the world's temperature has increased by 0,85% in the past 130 years. There is scientific consensus that global temperature cannot increase more than 2 degrees if the world is to avoid catastrophe.

The direct impact of climate change comes from the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather, particularly heat waves, floods, droughts and storms, says the report.

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Extreme weather disrupts water and food supplies, and resulting in malnutrition and water-borne diseases such as cholera and diarroeha.

Air pollution is one of the drivers of global warming. This is driven by increased carbon emissions and ground level (bad) ozone - chemical reactions that thrve in sunlight. These all add up to increased respiratory diseases.

“China's air pollution has already come at great cost, with an annual pollution related mortality of 1·21 million in 2010,” according to the report.

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Temperature increases allow mosquitos carrying malaria and dengue to breed in places that were previously too cold. Old people are particularly vulnerable to heat waves, while high temperatures make it harder for people to work outside - impacting on agriculture and construction.

In addition, violent conflict is likely as people displaced by floods and droughts try to find new land. For example, Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to flooding with more than five million people living in areas prone to cyclones and storms.

People severely affected by extreme temperatures are likely to experience mental health challenges such as post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression.

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But the report also says that concerted global efforts to tackle climate change actually represent one of the greatest opportunities to improve global health this century.

Commission co-Chair Professor Peng Gong, from Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, says “The health community has responded to many grave threats to health in the past. It took on entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry, and led the fight against HIV/AIDS. Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to human and environmental health of our generation.”

The report proposes a “decisive policy package which targets air pollution from the transport, agriculture, and energy sectors”, calling for the “rapid phase out of coal” to “protect cardiovascular and respiratory health”.

It also proposes “rapidly expanding access to renewable energy” in low income and middle income countries and “highly energy efficient buildings and low-cost active transport” (walking and cycling).

The commission concludes that a strong international consensus is essential to move the world to a global low-carbon economy, harnessing a crucial opportunity to protect human health, particularly of the poorest and most vulnerable populations, who stand to be hardest hit by the effects of climate change.

The Commission represents a major new collaboration between European and Chinese climate scientists and geographers, social and environmental scientists, biodiversity experts, engineers and energy policy experts, economists, political scientists and public policy experts, and health professionals.

As a result of the Commission's work, the authors propose the formation of a new global independent body on climate change and health ('Countdown to 2030: Climate Change and Health Action'). This global coalition will monitor and report every two years on the health impacts of climate change, progress in mitigation policies and their interaction with health, and progress with broader actions to reduce population vulnerability, to build climate resilience, and to implement low carbon, sustainable health systems.

 

Climate change facts

* Climate change is being driven by an increase in the world's temperature, called global warming.

* Global warming is caused by an increase in greenhouse gas emissions - particularly the gases carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide (N20).

* Greenhouse gases arise mainly from industry (particularly coal and oil) and agriculture (particularly the meat industry).

* Global temperature has risen by 0·85°C between 1880 and 2012.

* Arctic sea ice is disappearing at a rate of up to 50 000 km2 per year, while the Antarctic ice sheet is now losing 159 billion tonnes of ice each year, and sea levels are rising as a result.

* The sea is becoming more acidic, which is affecting fish and aquaculture.

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