As the effects of climate change become ever more pronounced, it’s time to consider their health impacts seriously.
Nobody would doubt that good health depends in part on the natural environment. However, the link between health and climate change is much less obvious. Yet, as the effects of climate change become ever more pronounced, it’s time to consider their health impacts seriously, say Jonathan Patz and Madeleine Thomson, editors of the new PLOS Medicine Climate Change and Health special issue.
The recent decade has seen a growth of research on the health risks of climate change, whose harmful effects may greatly undermine the health gains of the last fifty years. The threats include the increased ferocity of heatwaves and air pollution, spread of infectious diseases and malnutrition, and climate-related mass migration and armed conflicts.
Researchers emphasize the immediate nature of many impacts: heatwaves can lower cognitive abilities, extreme rainfall leads to sewage system contaminations, and wildfires hold multiple direct risks to human health. And as with many other climate change-related threats, women, children and populations of small islands are the ones who face the greatest risks.
Other links are much not so direct, yet no less serious: fossil-intensive transport supports sedentary lifestyles, to which 5.3 million premature deaths are attributed globally each year. Meanwhile, 7 more million premature deaths every year are attributed to air pollution, the largest share of which is related to greenhouse gas emissions.
Grave as all this sounds, however, climate change may also open the door for new pathways to improve human health. If more and more people decide to start walking and using bicycles, for instance, this will be not only good for climate but can also ease many of the health risks posed by contemporary lifestyles. Researchers also emphasize that the health outcomes of dealing with air pollution may greatly outrun the costs invested into renewable energy solutions.
In the United States alone health benefits of low-carbon energy pathways can offset the initial costs by between 26% and 1,050%. Thus, climate-related policies must also be considered as public health policies, while climate change mitigation should be considered as a top health priority. Not surprisingly, professionals are starting to unite around the issue into organizations like The Global Climate and Health Alliance, The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health and the Green and Healthy Hospitals network, acknowledging its complex and interconnected nature.
However, our understanding of the problems and challenges remains far from perfect, write researchers Hannah Nissan and Declan Conway in another paper from the issue. If uncertainty is not considered in its fullest, our efforts may lead to maladaptation, instead of a more nuanced and proactive response, they argue. Thus, we need to critically consider the credibility of knowledge regarding the particular health risks of climate change, as well as keeping the healthcare system flexible and adaptive to new knowledge gained.
For the time being, the pace of change is far above desired levels. We need better informed health professionals about local climate vulnerabilities. The improved allocation of finance is also a must, as only 1,5% of climate finance globally is directed towards healthcare. Finally, it is important to develop citizen awareness about climate risks and what every person can do to avert them and respond to them.
According to researchers, the next critical step should come from academia and the education system through the integration of climate and health issues into core curricula for future healthcare professionals so that they are better prepared to meet the challenges.