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Climate change poses major threat to health

But action to fight it could be our ‘greatest ever opportunity to improve global health’

Louise Prime

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The threat that global climate change poses to human health is so great that it could wipe out all the health progress that we’ve made over the past 50 years, according to the latest report in The Lancet. Alternatively, said the authors, getting to grips with it could present major opportunities for global health.

The report has been written by, among others, European and Chinese climate scientists, environmental scientists, natural scientists, social scientists, medical and health scholars, engineers, and energy policy experts. They point out that climate change could have a direct impact on health, such as illness caused by increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts and floods – and it could also have indirect adverse effects, for example changes in infection patterns, effects of emissions, uncertainty around food availability and resulting malnutrition. Further, they say, people’s health could deteriorate as a result of reduced social stability when they are forced to move because of predicted or immediate changes to living conditions, and the increased likelihood of conflict.

However, they also highlight the potential for positive opportunities presented by nations’ attempts to counter global warming. These include benefits to respiratory health resulting from a fall in emissions as we cut our consumption of fossil fuels; lower rates of obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke as people walk or cycle rather than using motor vehicles; and even improved dietary habits, such as eating less red meat because its production is so energy-hungry.

Senior adviser to the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change Peter Byass, professor of global health at Umeå University in Sweden, said: “Effective climate action may actually prove to be one of the greatest opportunities to also improve global health that we have ever had.”

RCP president Professor Jane Dacre welcomed the Commission, which continues doctors’ tradition of taking a broader view of health. She said: “For a public health issue like climate change, governments could have more influence on population health than individual patient behaviours … The clear set of recommendations provided by the Commission show how we can prevent and mitigate the risks to health posed by climate change, and should be considered by governments across the world now.”

Dr Peter Carter, RCN chief executive & general secretary, said: “This comprehensive report highlights once again that climate change is an urgent and pressing matter, and demonstrates just how gravely it will affect public health.”

He added: “Our over stretched health services are already straining, and unless we reconfigure them to be sustainable they will find it hard to withstand the increase in demand that climate change will undoubtedly bring. The most important message from this report is that we must start taking action now.”

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