Why climate change is a medical emergency

An ambulance and cars stuck in floods‘Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century’ is the stark opening statement of a new report published in The Lancet on Tuesday 23 July.

The report is a result of a year-long Commission held jointly between The Lancet and University College London Institute for Global Health. Its authors make no bones about the clear and present danger of climate change, arguing that it could undermine the last 50 years of advances in medical health.


Didn’t we know this already, you might ask? The answer is no, we didn’t, and worryingly, neither did the majority of health professionals. According to the report, we’ve grossly underestimated the risk to human health posed by flooding, droughts and heatwaves.

For example, the World Health Organisation predicts that 250,000 people a year could die worldwide by 2030 as a direct result of climate change, but this doesn’t take into account the fact that our population is ageing rapidly and there will many more older people who are vulnerable to heatwaves and hospitals at risk of flooding The real figure, then, could be much, much higher.

And it’s not just future generations who will be affected – it’s us and our children too, both in other countries and in the UK. Worryingly, the greatest impact will be on those who are already the poorest in the world.


So what are the health impacts of climate change? Well, heatwaves will increase the number of heat-related deaths, particularly among older people, and asthma and hay fever will also increase with rising pollen levels.

Floods and storms will increase death, injury and disease, as well as impact on food security. Food shortages and the displacement of people, in turn, are likely to lead to civil unrest and wars.

Without major change, the report argues, climate change could be ‘sufficient to trigger a discontinuity in the long-term progression of humanity.’ It sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not, when you consider the health impacts.

So what can we do to prevent this medical emergency? The report calls for major policy changes to reduce our carbon emissions, including phasing out coal-fired plants and investing in green cities, energy and transport.


The health benefits of cutting carbon emissions would be manifold: respiratory-related deaths would fall, as would traffic accidents, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Critically, improving the energy efficiency of buildings – something which Age UK has been arguing for with its campaign for warm homes – would reduce winter mortality, improve respiratory health and save the NHS around £600 million a year in treatment bills in England alone.

Of course there are challenges, from the massive gaps in our knowledge to the inadequacies of health systems to protect people in countries most at risk. We need a better understanding of technologies and how they can help us adapt to changes in climate.

And creating the conditions for low-carbon living is essential. Finally there is the question of how we adapt our institutions to make climate change the priority it needs to be.


But all of this is possible if we start today. The Commission calls for a new advocacy and public health movement, which would bring together governments, international agencies, NGOs, communities, and academics from all disciplines to adapt to the effects of climate change on health. And this includes considering any particular impacts on an ageing population.

We know it makes sense. Now the discussion has started, it’s time for us all to act.

Photo credit: accarrino (Flickr Creative Commons)

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