Climate change is also a real public health emergency


Several UN reports on climate change have warned the world of the dramatic consequences that could befall the environment, the planet and human survival if increasing global warming trends continue. As an editorial in the medical journal The Lancet states, “Acting on the climate crisis is a clear, but still neglected, priority for public health.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2020 was the second hottest year on Earth in the past 140 years. In addition, 19 of the hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. The impact of these increasing global warming trends has been significant on people of all ages, especially the most vulnerable and those with health problems under -lyings.

Estimated annual deaths attributed to climate change by the World Health Organization are around 150,000. Between the years 2030 to 2050, this number could reach up to 250,000 deaths. Most of these deaths will result from heat stress, malnutrition, malaria, and intestinal and respiratory infections, especially among children in developing countries.

Climate change negatively impacts social and environmental determinants of health such as clean air, clean water, nutritious food and safe housing. The direct costs of failing health conditions caused or worsened by climate change are estimated by the WHO to be between $2 billion and $4 billion by 2030.

It is possible that climate change will bring some benefits, such as fewer winter deaths in some climates, as well as increased food production in areas free from the rigors of cold. However, some assessments of the consequences of global warming show that most of them will be negative.

The WHO reports that globally, the number of weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. Natural disasters force people to move, increasing the likelihood of negative effects on health from communicable diseases, mental health disorders and other conditions.

Increasingly frequent heat waves increase the likelihood of illnesses and hospitalizations. In July, temperatures in California’s Death Valley exceeded 54 degrees Celsius (130 degrees Fahrenheit), nearly breaking the record of 56.6 set in 1913. A study commissioned by the American Association of Retired Persons concluded that Hospital admissions and emergency room visits for kidney failure, urinary tract infections and other health problems increase dramatically among older adults during heat waves.

Extremely high temperatures increase concentrations of ground-level ozone which can lead to serious respiratory illnesses such as asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Global warming is also increasing the number of infectious diseases carried by ticks, mosquitoes and other insects.

Sea level rise and flooding not only destroy homes, they can also wreak havoc on medical facilities and other health and social services. Floods contaminate freshwater supplies, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases.

The enormous challenge of climate change requires appropriate government policies to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. The policies that need to be implemented are known; what is needed is the political will to implement them. While most world leaders might recognize the climate threats to people’s health, their current actions are deeply insufficient, says medical journal The Lancet.

There is a need to increase individual resilience and readiness to deal with adverse events by building personal preparedness, strengthening social and family bonds, and creating and/or strengthening supportive mental health environments. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that only by acting as a community can we solve global threats. Climate change will not only affect our health and quality of life; it threatens our survival.

Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and author of “Environmental Impact on Child Health”, a publication of the Pan American Health Organization.

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