Climate change is really in the news these days - last week the Pope made a landmark statement; today The Lancet presents a major report on how climate change interacts with health, and there will be more as the world moves towards the United Nations' COP21 summit meeting in Paris in December. Here I'm picking up some of the ideas from the Lancet Commission report that connect climate change and health issues (noting that I was one of the Commission members).
The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change
It's not easy to get a clear, realistic view of climate change issues. Because there are big vested interests involved - including the oil industry, other fossil fuel providers, new industrial opportunities relating to renewable energy, and political concerns around the economic consequences of de-carbonising, a lot of what is said about climate change has to be interpreted very carefully. The United Nations is leading a long-term process - around the annual COP meetings - that gives all its member countries a chance to participate in strategic and political negotiations on the world's best ways forward.
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There is now unambiguous consensus that the world's climate is warming at an unprecedented rate, and that this is a direct consequence of the amount of carbon dioxide that humankind is collectively pumping into the atmosphere. To protect future generations, the world has to find ways of reducing carbon-generating activities in the coming decades. But what does this have to do with the health of the world's people?
Even if the main change in climate will be gradual warming over decades, climatologists also know that there will be more frequent "rare" weather events along the way, such as floods, droughts, storms and heatwaves. These events have direct consequences on health - either directly, for example if people are drowned in floods, or indirectly, for example if crops are destroyed and food becomes scarce. Thus the effects of climate change on our health is not some vague future concern - things are already happening and will continue to do so. In that sense, climate change is a direct threat to health.
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But, according to the Lancet report, climate change may also be a great opportunity for global health. How can that be? As it happens, quite a lot of the actions that individuals can take to reduce personal carbon emissions are at the same time good for health. Examples would include regularly undertaking local journeys on foot or by bike, rather than by car (which reduces fuel consumption and contributes to fitness) or eating less red meat (reducing the carbon emitted by cattle and also reducing some chronic disease risks). These are so-called climate and health co-benefits.
The health of people in Africa is especially threatened by climate change. The Lancet has also published a comment from Ethiopia's Ministers of Health and Environment that provides an important African perspective. Ethiopia has already seen abnormally high peaks in deaths, stunted growth in children and changes to patterns of malaria and meningitis which all have direct links to abnormal weather patterns. Consequently, Ethiopia's rapidly growing economy is committed to moving increasingly towards renewable energy sources - with plenty of rivers, wind and sunshine available as the raw materials.
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So climate change is a huge challenge to every government in the world, as well as to every global citizen - you and me. As individuals we may not have that much infuence over our governments, but we each have a carbon footprint that to some extent we can control. If we walk or bike more, we reduce our carbon footprint and get fitter at the same time. If we eat locally produced healthy food, we reduce carbon emissions and protect ourselves from the risks of various chronic diseases. So each one of us has a challenge - for the sake of the planet and for future generations - to claim the the co-benefits of reducing carbon emissions and improving our health.