How combatting climate change is good for our health

Climate change could do major harm to gains in human health, but taking strong action now will have huge benefits, according to a new study. Two of the report’s authors spoke to chinadialogue

A rapidly warming climate will wreak a huge toll on human health and healthcare systems unless politicians can agree big cuts in greenhouse gases and funnel finance to the most vulnerable countries, says a report commissioned by medical journal The Lancet.  The report, which is timed to focus minds ahead of December’s UN climate summit in Paris, warns that many of the major gains made in the last 50 years in health could be wiped out by runaway climate change. Professor Anthony Costello of University College London and Professor Peng Gong from Beijing’s Tsinghua University explain how extreme weather will harm human health and how governments should respond.  

chinadialogue: What has been the main motivation for the report and what do you hope the impact on policymakers will be?

Anthony Costello: Climate change has huge implications for global health and it’s amazing how many politicians haven’t ‘got’ it so far. We want to raise the profile of climate change as a health issue at the Paris climate summit, not just by talking about the huge costs in terms of lives and ill health from climate change, but also the positive impacts on health of less pollution and cleaner technology such as low-carbon vehicles. One of our main messages is that tackling climate change represents one of the greatest opportunities to benefit human health for generations to come.

chinadialogue: How serious is the risk posed by climate change to well-being. In what circumstances are lives at risk?

Anthony Costello: The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the current rate we are churning out greenhouse emissions (GHGs) means temperatures could rise by up to 5C this century. We really don’t want to go there. It would be nothing less than catastrophic and could trigger a 12-fold increase in heatwaves, which is a major killer. You only have to look at last week’s heatwave in Pakistan and the recent one in India, where many thousands have died in temperatures nearing 50C. Heatwaves in north-western Europe in 2003 and in Russia in 2010 also show the terrible effects these events can have on vulnerable populations in developed countries as well. Besides extremely hot weather, the other direct events related to climate change will be an increase in floods, droughts and storms. Indirect consequences, which would likely be huge, will come from changes in infectious disease patterns, air pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, involuntary migration, displacement of people and armed conflicts. These events also have a major impact on mental health while, on the flip side, relatively stable weather systems and cleaner environments will mean less anxiety and a greater sense of wellbeing.

chinadialogue: What do you recommend that policymakers should do to achieve big cuts in GHG emissions?
Anthony Costello: Coal is the main enemy from both a climate and health perspective, and is something we need to phase out rapidly. The Paris climate conference is the most important of its kind for 20 years and we need to see strong signals from the summit that will put an effective price on carbon. Countries at the UN will also need to agree to withdraw hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies for fossil fuels, which the IMF reckons has a total economic cost (including impacts on health) of US$5.3 trillion per year. The cost of dealing with climate change is one-fifth of that figure, and only a ‘polluter must pay’ approach will mean that fossil fuels are increasingly priced out by renewables. More senior executives in the private sector are pushing this, particularly insurers, as they increasingly understand the risks to their businesses.
chinadialogue: A changing climate, and the use of fossil fuels, will likely have huge health impacts on China. Can you explain what these are and how this resonates with central government?
Peng Gong: The health impacts of the use of coal and transport fuels have been well documented, although perhaps more so in prosperous cities than the poorer, mainly rural hinterlands where many coal-fired power stations and mines are built. The consequences of fossil fuel use on the climate will mean increasing extremes in weather, which will mainly be felt in poor rural areas. China’s leadership is fully aware of the health aspects and comments from the country’s top meteorologist earlier this year warned of serious impacts on natural resources. Climate change could mean that scarce water supplies dwindle more rapidly, while searing heat and increased likelihood of floods will impact crop yields and the productivity of rural workers. Climate change could also speed up the huge wave of rural migration to cities, many of which are increasingly vulnerable to rising sea levels. Although it should be said, in the event of a warmer world, rural China  with its own risks of flooding and is less equipped to deal with extremes of temperatures  may be more a dangerous place to be than urban areas.