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Climate change already damaging health of millions globally

31 October 2017

UCL researchers have contributed to a report showing that climate change is already a significant public health issue and a looming global health emergency. 

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The research findings, titled “From 25 years of inaction to a global transformation for public health” and outlined in The Lancet medical journal, demonstrate the various ways climate change is already affecting the health of people across the planet today.

The report was produced by the Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change, which UCL leads. The organisation involves leading doctors, academics and policy professionals who have contributed analysis and jointly authored the report. Aside from UCL, partners behind the research include the World Bank and the World Health Organization.

Dr Nick Watts (UCL Institute for Global Health), Executive Director of the Lancet Countdown, has commented on the significance of the report.

“The Lancet Countdown's 2017 report provides a global 'health check' on the state of the planet. Its indicators make clear that climate change is already undermining the health of populations around the world, and that our hospitals and health systems are unprepared for the future,” he said.

Some of the existing health impacts documented by the report include:

  • An average 5.3% fall in productivity for rural labour estimated globally since 2000, as a result of rising temperatures. In 2016 this effectively took more than 920,000 people globally out of the workforce, with 418,000 of them in India alone.
  • Between 2000 and 2016, the number of people exposed to heatwave events has increased by approximately 125 million, with a record 175 million people exposed to heatwaves in 2015. This supports The Lancet’s existing research showing just under 1 billion additional heatwave exposure events happening by 2050.
  • Undernutrition is identified as the largest health impact of climate change in the 21st century. Related impacts of climate change on crop production referenced in the report include a 6% decline in global wheat yields and 10% fall in rice yields for each additional 1 °C rise in global temperature.
  • Over 803,000 premature and avoidable deaths in 2015 as a result of air pollution across 21 Asian countries, attributable to just one type of air pollution from coal power, transport and use of fossil fuels in the home.
  • A striking increase of 3% and 5.9% in the vectorial capacity for the transmission of Dengue due to climate trends, by just two types of mosquito since 1990. With 50 to 100 million infections of Dengue estimated to occur each year, this will exacerbate the spread of the world’s most rapidly expanding disease.

The initiative builds on the work of the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, which concluded that anthropogenic climate change threatens to undermine the last 50 years of gains in public health. Today’s research shows this is becoming increasingly clear and the challenges are greater than anticipated. The findings also show that climate change is affecting the health of all populations today. These impacts are disproportionately felt by communities least responsible for climate change and those who are the most vulnerable in society.

However, the authors are also clear that responding to climate change still provides an opportunity to realise substantial gains in public health. The potential benefits include cleaning up the air of polluted cities, delivering more nutritious diets, ensuring energy, food and water security, and alleviating poverty, alongside social and economic inequalities.

Responding to the report, Professor Hugh Montgomery (UCL Division of Medicine), Co-Chair of the Lancet Countdown and Director of the UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance, added: “We cannot simply adapt our way out of this, but need to treat both the cause and the symptoms of climate change. There are many ways to do both that make better use of overstretched healthcare budgets and improve lives in the process.”

As an international research collaboration, the Lancet Countdown will help ensure the case for action on health and climate change is better evidenced and understood. It is partnering and funded by the Wellcome Trust, a leading global charitable foundation based in the UK, which is committed to stimulating research on health and climate change. A key driver of its support for the initiative comes in finding ways to reduce and avoid the further risks to public health that climate has been shown to create and exacerbate.

Dr Watts concluded, “The collaboration is led by the UCL Institute for Global Health, but it is a truly multidisciplinary partnership, with six schools and institutes within UCL participating (and 24 academic partners around the world). This cross-sectoral approach helps us understand the complexities of the world's response to climate change: whilst the last 25 years have seen many of our indicators move in the wrong direction; there are glimmers of hope, which promise unprecedented opportunities for public health if we accelerate our response to a low-carbon world.”

Analysis across five separate themes and the 40 indicators that form the basis of the 2017 report, this research provides the first global stocktake of the issue. Publishing its research annually in The Lancet, the findings of the Lancet Countdown are intended to help inform an accelerated policy response to climate change and equip health professionals in managing its implications.

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