Climate Change Accelerating Health Crises, Endangering More Lives, Warns New Lancet ‘Countdown’ Report 
climate change
Globally, extreme temperature events are increasing in frequency, duration, and magnitude – leading to more heat-related illness, reduced water resource access and also reduced labour outputs by agricultural and other outdoor workers.

Surging fossil fuel use to feed a COVID economic recovery and record numbers of heat-wave days for older groups and agricultural workers; these are just a few of the sobering messages contained in the new Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change,  just 10 days before the start of the Glasgow Climate Conference. 

The report, published on Thursday, offers a view of humankind’s future on a warming planet from the health endpoint – with the pace and intensity of heat waves, storms, floods, and droughts increasing, depleting food production and degrading air, water, and other natural ecosystems.  

While most of the world’s attention in 2020 was focused on the COVID pandemic, some 51.6 million people were directly impacted by climate change-related extreme weather, the report notes.  

Already, people aged 65+ suffered from 3.1 billion more “person-days” of heatwave exposures in 2020, as compared to the 20 years between 1986 and 2005, the Lancet Countown also finds. 

Infectious disease zones are expanding with warmer seasons and temperatures as “climate change and its drivers are creating ideal conditions for infectious disease transmission, potentially undoing decades of progress to control diseases such as dengue fever, chikungunya, Zika, malaria, and cholera,” the report stated.

Fossil fuel subsidies continue apace 

Traffic jam in Dhaka (Bangladesh) – Fossil fuel burning, including for unsustainable urban transport systems, leads to deadly air pollution emissions that kill millions every year – as well as exacerbating physical inactivity and traffic injury.

With the world already 1.2℃ higher than the pre-industrial period, warming trends are hitting ever harder in poor regions, which are experiencing the worst effects of heat waves, sea level rise and other intertwined environment and health emergencies. 

Some 79% of losses in labour capacity due to heat waves, for instance, is occurring in the agricultural sector of low-income countries – the ones that can least afford to lose food production capacity.  

And yet the world continues to subsidize fossil fuels apace –  tens of billions of dollars annually in some countries, according to a 2018 survey of 84 countries responsible for around 92% of global CO2 emissions. Post-pandemic indicators suggest little change in those trends with increased fossil fuel consumption fueling economic rebounds from COVID.  

And even as the Countdown was issued, policymakers from countries such as Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia were reported to be looking for ways to tamp down the key findings from a forthcoming UN scientific report about the dangers of continued fossil fuel use. The comments on the latest draft assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were released by a Greenpeace team of UK journalists, Unearthed.

UN advises concrete action for future generations

UN Secretery-General Antonio Guterres

The UN warns countries primarily responsible for global CO2 emissions to take ‘concrete action now’, ahead of the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, starting 31 October. 

“The carbon pollution of a handful of countries has brought humanity to its knees, and they bear the greatest responsibility,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, during a Thursday afternoon press conference.

“Now before Glasgow, G20 leaders will meet in Rome, and they know their economies are responsible for four-fifths of planet-heating carbon pollution.”

The Group of 20 Summit, or G20, will take place in Rome 30 – 31 October, with the need to curb greenhouses gases high on the agenda for the gathering of the twenty richest’s countries.

Guterres advised these countries: “My message to them is clear: Do not fiddle with half measures and shallow promises while our planet burns. Do not pass up this opportunity to do the right thing for current and future generations.”

‘Grim Warnings’ 

Potential labor lost due to heat-related factors in each sector

“These are grim warnings that for every day that we delay our response to climate change, the situation gets more critical,” Marina Romanello, lead author of the Lancet Countdown report said. 

The report used 44 indicators to track the rise in health impacts of climate change and the current health consequences of a “delayed and inconsistent” response of countries globally. 

“This year’s indicators give a bleak outlook: global inequities are increasing, and the direction of travel is worsening all health outcomes. Health services in low-income and middle-income countries are in particularly urgent need of strengthening… Succumbing to the climate emergency is not inevitable,” stated a Lancet editorial, published at the same time as the Countdown report.  

As countries, diplomats and activists prepare to meet at the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference, the report aims to make health a more central focus of  the intense debates expected at the conference – a setting where the issue has often remained confined to the sidelines. 

“Climate change is here and we’re already seeing it damaging human health across the world,” Prof Anthony Costello, Executive Director of the Lancet Countdown said.

Current global commitments insufficient to halt temperature rise

Global land area affected by drought events per month

The overriding goal of Glasgow is to keep the average global temperature from rising over 1.5°C in the course of this next century – as set forth at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference.

A rise over this threshold would mean even more flash floods, droughts, heatwaves and disease spread. 

But the world is now 1·2°C warmer than in the preindustrial period (1850–1900), with the last seven years being the hottest on record yet. So there is growing panic about holding to a 1.5°C limit among policymakers, scientists and activists aware of the dangers.  

And in fact, global average temperatures right now are on a trajectory to rise by around 2·4°C average global temperature, in line with woefully insufficient global decarbonisation commitments seen so far. 

And at current rates, the world will take 150 years to fully decarbonise the energy systems, the report warns.

Coming up next: more epidemics, increasing inequalities

Change in climate suitability for infectious disease

As the world’s temperature rises, the devastating impacts of heatwaves, drought and forest fires have been well reported in countries like the U.S and Canada. 

But in low and middle income countries, rising average temperatures and altered rainfall patterns threaten to reverse decades of progress made in addressing food and water insecurity that are fundamental to peoples’ good health.

Just as alarming are the risks of new epidemics of vector-borne, air-borne and water-borne diseases – as they spread their infectious arc to more regions of the world and more days in the year. 

The number of months suitable for malaria transmission, for instance, has increased by 39 percent in the highland areas of low-income countries where the disease is endemic. 

Today, dengue and Zika virus, and chikungunya majorly affect populations in central America, South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and south Asia. However, while low-income countries remain the most vulnerable, the epidemic risks for these diseases is increasing globally, the report warns. 

Northern European and US coastal areas are also becoming more conducive to bacteria which produce gastroenteritis, severe wound infections, and sepsis.

Air pollution continues to choke & kill 

Deaths attributable to exposure to PM 2.5

The health impacts of air pollution continue to lead to millions of lives lost every year – with 7 million deaths from both household and outdoor air pollution sources, according to WHO. 

A third of those air-pollution related deaths are attributable to fossil-fuel combustion, with medium-and-high HDI countries seeing the highest mortality rates. 

And while air pollution is just one of multiple health risks associated with a carbon-addicted lifestyles, diets and economies. 

For instance, promoting healthier, low-carbon diets that are heavier in plant-based foods, as well as urban environments conducive to more active  lifestyles would “prevent millions of deaths annually from reduced exposure to air pollution, healthier diets, and more active lifestyles, and contribute to reducing health inequities globally,” the report finds. 

Low-Income countries face the biggest economic losses – including reduced farmworker capacity   

Potential labor lost due to heat-related factors in each sector

Low income countries ultimately will bear the biggest economic brunt of the climate crisis – particularly as rising temperatures affect people’s ability to work outside, leading to more heat-related illness and reduced earnings.

In countries at the lowest end of the human development index (HDI), estimated income losses in 2020 were equivalent to 3.9–7.6 percent of GDP, depending on the degree of shade or sun exposure during agricultural and construction work.

And that is without regards to the effects on unpaid and informal domestic and agricultural labour.   

Although countries in the highest income countries have collectively made the most progress in the decarbonisation of the energy system, they are still the main contributors to carbon-dioxide emissions.  Collectively, high-income countries represent 45% of the world’s total contribution to climate emissions – although China remains the largest single contributor.    

Only 18 percent of all funds earmarked for economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic by the end of 2020 involved a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. 

This meant that despite the dip seen during the pandemic, the year 2020 saw a rise in greenhouse gas emission by 5 percent – returning global anthropogenic CO2 emissions back to their peak, pre-pandemic levels. 

States the report: 

“The overshoot in emissions resulting from a carbon-intensive COVID-19 recovery would irreversibly prevent the world from meeting climate commitments and the Sustainable Development Goals and lock humanity into an increasingly extreme and unpredictable environment. Data in this report expose the health impacts and health inequities of the current world at 1·2°C of warming above pre-industrial levels and supports that, on the current trajectory, climate change will become the defining narrative of human health.

“By directing the trillions of dollars that will be committed to COVID-19 recovery towards the WHO’s prescriptions for a healthy, green recovery, the world could meet the Paris Agreement goals, protect the natural systems that support wellbeing, and minimise inequities through reduced health effects and maximised co-benefits of a universal low-carbon transition.

“This pivotal moment of economic stimulus represents a historical opportunity to secure the health of present and future generations.”

Image Credits: Flickr – joiseyshowaa, Oxfam East Africa, UN, The Lancet.

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