Climate change and health: a very special countdown

Climate change and health: a very special countdown

January 23, 2020

Climate change and health: a very special countdown

As they have done every year since 2015, the Lancet Countdown experts have published a report that takes stock of the link between climate change and human health and includes a number of forecasts

Globally, progress has been made in terms of combating climate change and the effects that these changes can have on human health, but the road ahead is still very long and undoubtedly fraught with obstacles. This is explained by over 120 experts from academic centers and United Nations agencies around the world who are part of the Lancet Countdown. Since 2015, this working group has brought together climate scientists, engineers, energy and public health experts, economists and doctors who publish an annual report in The Lancet magazine explaining in detail how climate change is affecting human health. “Climate change is threatening to undermine 50 years of public health achievements,” the experts write on their official website, highlighting that the group is working to ensure that health occupies a prominent place in the way governments know and understand climate change and seek solutions to combat it.  

We are at a crossroads

“The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change.” This is one of the key messages that emerged from the 2019 report, in which the experts take a snapshot of the current situation but also explain that the world population will increasingly face extreme weather events, loss of food and water security, and a change in the distribution of infectious diseases, while also more generally having to deal with a more uncertain future. “Unless we change the pace and speed up the actions being taken, this new era will define human health at all stages of life,” they add. Today, climate scientists are drawing different scenarios for the future, which essentially depend on the quantity and quality of the actions put in place to combat global warming. 

The first, and undoubtedly the most worrying, is carrying on as we are (“business as usual”, as defined in the 2019 report). The current model has already led to a 1 °C rise in temperature globally compared to the pre-industrial era, mainly due to the use of fossil fuels. Without a change of course, children born today will live in a world 4 °C warmer than the pre-industrial average, with unprecedented consequences for their lives and the environment: lower crop yields, lower food safety, high air pollution, extreme weather events, but also less evident consequences such as loss of working capacity, migration and conflict. 

An alternative to all this exists and is represented by a model that aims to maintain the temperature increase to “well below 2 °C”. “In a scenario that achieves this target, a child born today would see the end of the coal era in the UK and Canada between the ages of 6 and 11”, says the report. This approach would result in cleaner air, healthier cities, more nutritious food and a host of new investments in health systems and infrastructure. The good news is that, albeit still too slowly, the world seems to have become more aware of the problem and the seeds of a transformation are beginning to be sown. 

Five areas of analysis and action

The 41 indicators assessed in preparing the 2019 report are divided into 5 macro-areas: climate change impacts, exposures, and vulnerability; adaptation, planning, and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co-benefits; finance and economics; and public and political engagement. Each of these areas is analyzed in detail and the results, reported in the final document, highlight some of the most obvious contradictions. 

In 2018, the fourth hottest year on record, over 220 million additional exposures to extreme heat waves occurred, which are associated with an increased vulnerability to heat on all continents and an increased risk of transmission of certain diseases such as dengue fever. In many respects, progress in mitigating and adapting to change is still insufficient as evidenced by the fact that, between 2016 to 2018, the supply of primary energy derived from coal increased by 1.7%, reversing the previous trend. 

In contrast, 51 out of the 101 countries assessed have implemented ad hoc national health plans and 69% of cities have planned risk and vulnerability assessments. Furthermore, the attention and involvement of the population and political decision-makers (the latter among those responsible for the growing targeted financial investments) are growing, particularly as a result of the climate strikes by young people all over the world and the global climate meetings organized by the United Nations on an annual basis (the COP25 in Madrid in December 2019 being the latest).

Regardless of the results of the report, one thing is certain, as experts explain: “An unprecedented challenge requires an unprecedented response.

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