One of the aspects of climate change that is least discussed is its effects on human health. We still have it pegged as an environmental issue in the media, and talk about ‘saving the earth’. There are of course quite wide-ranging health implications to climate change, from moving disease vectors to heatwaves, to increased risks from natural disasters and food insecurity.
When we do read about climate change and health, those are the sorts of things we’re usually presented with. But this week the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change published its most recent report. Yes, it has all the dire warnings – the rise of 4 degrees that represents business as usual could reverse all the health gains of economic development in poorer countries, it warns. But it also makes a point I’d not heard before: “Tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century”
There are several reasons for this. One is that climate change is having an impact already, with increased extreme weather and natural disasters. That has direct consequences for health and nutrition, and mental health considerations too.
Another reason that climate change mitigation presents an opportunity for health is that it will require us to move beyond fossil fuels, and they are a big health risk in themselves. Cutting our coal and oil use would reduce air pollution and incidences of respiratory disease and lung cancer. “Clean cookstoves and fuels will not only protect the climate from black carbon (a very short lived climate pollutant), but also cut deaths from household air pollution—a major killer in low income countries.”
(Improving air quality would have economic benefits too. The OECD estimates that illness and premature death from air pollution costs the global economy $3.5 trillion every year.)
Changing the way we travel could mean a reduction in road traffic accidents. Choosing a more active means of transport – walking or cycling – would cut rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Insulating houses properly would reduce our exposure to both heatwaves and cold snaps, preventing many seasonal deaths among the more vulnerable. With an improved housing stock we’d have fewer problems from mould and damp, and thus fewer allergies.
The consequence of not dealing with climate are pretty dire for human health, especially in developing countries. But as it turns out, acting to prevent dangerous climate change wouldn’t just fend off that threat. It could have substantial benefits in its own right.