When it comes to our health, we have no time to waste

by Georges Benjamin, Ashish Jha, Ken Berlin | American Public Health Association
Thursday, 16 February 2017 11:36 GMT

A maize plant is seen among other dried maize at a field in Hoopstad, a maize-producing district in the Free State province, South Africa, January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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Scientific community needs to fill gaps left by apathetic leadership as climate change imperils people's health

The evidence is clear that the climate crisis is a major threat to public health. Heat waves increase air pollution and illness. Severe changes in weather and drought threaten crops, water supplies, natural resources, and the very ability of people in some countries even to feed themselves. Yet the importance of this connection between the crisis and health already receives too little attention, and in the United States, we now face an emerging policy environment that is, at best, indifferent and, at worst, antagonistic to climate action.

However, political change cannot be allowed to slow action on climate change. It succeeded in cancelling a major summit on climate change and health to be hosted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but only for a moment. Our organisations joined with former vice president Al Gore and other groups stepping up to host a similar summit. We recognise the need for these urgent issues to be addressed, understood, and confronted by effective policy - both at home and abroad.

We know that the climate crisis is not some distant, far off threat: it is already having an impact on the lives and health of people around the world. The World Health Organization has called climate change “one of the greatest health risks of the 21st century,” and The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, has argued that it poses “an unacceptably high and potentially catastrophic risk to human health”.

We do not have to look far to see the proof. Almost 17,000 in the UK and France - and more than 70,000 throughout Europe - were killed in a 2003 heatwave that has been directly attributed to climate change. In 2015, back-to-back brutal heat waves struck the Indian subcontinent claiming at least 2,500 lives in India.

An explosive outbreak of the Zika virus infected at least 200,000 Brazilians since 2014, with the climate crisis a major factor. Heavier than normal rains and abnormally warm temperatures have helped the mosquitoes that carry the virus thrive in Brazil and to spread throughout the Americas.

Nor is the danger of spreading disease limited to the Americas. In central China, warmer temperatures and increased rainfall has brought about a reemergence of malaria.

The impacts of the climate crisis can be perilous and even fatal. Heat stroke and heat exhaustion from longer and hotter extreme heat events are the most obvious dangers, but warmer temperatures also make the very air people breathe more deadly. Heightened levels of ozone and other local air pollutants during ever-hotter summer months spike the rates of asthma attacks and additional ailments.

Other climate impacts are also potentially lethal. Changing weather norms are already altering the transmission patterns of infectious diseases, resulting in unexpected outbreaks of malaria, dengue fever, cholera, tick-born encephalitis, and West Nile virus. Floods, which are increasing in regularity and severity, create more breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects. Unpredictable and inconsistent precipitation patterns and higher temperatures are also reducing crop yields, causing more widespread malnourishment and nutrition deficiencies.

Tragically, these burdens are being - and will be - borne the most by children, the elderly and the economically disadvantaged populations that have done the least to cause the climate crisis.

The threat of extreme heat to public health should be obvious, but some public officials are slow to even recognise the dangers: just last week, India’s environment minister said - contrary to established science - that "there is no conclusive data available" on the link between pollution and mortality. Clearly, in the United States we now have our own challenges in facing skeptical public and elected officials. The global community must not be slowed to action by those who would deny science.

Because of this, the scientific and research community bear a particular responsibility to fill the gaps left by apathetic leadership and constrained government agencies and make the best research, science and solutions accessible to all. Citizens are already taking a public stand, committing to march on Washington, D.C., on April 29 to stand up not only for science but also for decisive climate action at all levels and across all political affiliations.

Make no mistake: the climate crisis is solvable. But unless we all work together on this toughest of global challenges, the health and well-being of the world’s citizens will be at greater and greater risk.

After the U.S. election, world leaders at the annual United Nations climate talks recommitted to the Paris Agreement, assuring the global community that no single nation - even China, the world’s largest historical greenhouse gas polluter - could scuttle planet-wide climate action.          

As American researchers, scientists, public health professionals and climate change advocates, we will continue the critical work of protecting public health and protecting the environment, doing all we can to ensure that science drives decision-making and policy.

Ashish Jha is director of Harvard Global Health Institute, Georges C. Benjamin is executive director of the American Public Health Association, Ken Berlin is president and CEO of The Climate Reality Project.