More than 200 health journals have published an unprecedented joint editorial calling for immediate and universal action to slow climate change and protect human health. The joint call for action comes in advance of the UN General Assembly in New York, the Convention on Biological Diversity summit in Kunming, China, and the COP26 UN Climate Change negotiations, in Glasgow.
The authors write:
We are united in recognising that only fundamental and equitable changes to societies will reverse our current trajectory.
The risks to health of increases above 1·5°C are now well established. Indeed, no temperature rise is “safe”. In the past 20 years, heat-related mortality among people older than 65 years has increased by more than 50%. Higher temperatures have brought increased dehydration and renal function loss, dermatological malignancies, tropical infections, adverse mental health outcomes, pregnancy complications, allergies, and cardiovascular and pulmonary morbidity and mortality.[5,6] Harms disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, including children, older populations, ethnic minorities, poorer communities, and those with underlying health problems.[2,4]
They note the importance of “thriving ecosystems” to support human health, and report that: “Global heating is also contributing to the decline in global yield potential for major crops, falling by 1·8–5·6% since 1981.” Unhealthy, unsustainable food systems degrade both human health and economic prosperity.
It is right for governments to focus on combatting and containing COVID-19, but the major health threats posed by climate change, including risk of new pandemics from virus spillover, are too urgent to allow for delayed action. Health is not an individual concern, but an integrative fabric of influences.
Dr Fiona Godlee, editor-in-chief of the BMJ, and one of the co-authors of the editorial, is quoted by the Guardian saying:
Health professionals have been on the frontline of the Covid-19 crisis and they are united in warning that going above 1.5C and allowing the continued destruction of nature will bring the next, far deadlier crisis.
The impact of unchecked global climate disruption will affect every nation and will reach people at all levels of income. Whole economies are at risk, as is the stability of nation states. Major commodities markets, financial systems, and food security, are all facing systemic threats.
Pandemics are already coming at an unprecedented rate, as new viruses spill over from displaced wildlife to human populations; the frequency and severity of such spillovers is expected to increase as global heating degrades ecosystems and disrupts reliable habitat. Reducing the risk of future pandemics will require transformational, integrated action on climate, biodiversity, food, and health.
Climate effects on human health are many, intersecting, and compounding. Physical threats from natural disaster turn into disease threats, and heightened risk of illness from non-communicable diseases related to displacement, stress, dietary disruption, and interference with water supplies and other health-building modern conveniences.
Our everyday health and wellbeing are more intimately tied to both soft and hard infrastructure than we tend to recognize. That means crisis-level disruptions to basic services, or displacement of trained service providers and institutions that build resilience, can directly degrade our chances at maintaining good health.
The CDC lists 9 major areas of health affected by climate disruption, and warns:
In the U.S., public health can be affected by disruptions of physical, biological, and ecological systems, including disturbances originating here and elsewhere. The health effects of these disruptions include increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events, changes in the prevalence and geographical distribution of food- and water-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases, and threats to mental health.
This global call from leading health journals for emergency action on climate and biodiversity, to protect food security and human health, comes as a global community of scientists and the UN issue “a code red for humanity.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that only with the most immediate, widespread, and most ambitious climate action, will we avoid catastrophic impacts from further climate disruption.
Our most basic rights, including the right to live free from the tyranny of unaccountable harm, are threatened by unchecked climate disruption and its effects on human health. The health imperatives of climate action are clear; as the authors note: “we should proactively contribute to global prevention of further damage and action on the root causes of the crisis.”
For more information on how treating health as a fabric of influences that drive wellbeing can help us reinvent systems that drive prosperity, go to ReinventingProsperity.org