Climate change has already affected the health of millions worldwide—but there are "glimmers of progress" toward a healthier planet, according to a new report from a commission convened by The Lancet.
According to the New York Times, The Lancet several years ago formed a commission, called The Lancet Countdown, to monitor how climate change affects human health. As part of this effort, the commission will assess 40 factors of climate change and their effect on health globally, such as air pollution, climate-sensitive diseases, heat waves, malnutrition, and weather-related disasters.
The latest report marks the first assessment from the commission, based on the work of experts from 24 universities and intergovernmental organizations, the Times reports.
According to report, the harms of climate change are "far worse than previously understood." For instance, the report found:
- Heat stress and other factors reduced outdoor labor capacity in rural areas by an average of 5.3% over the past 16 years, while productivity as a whole fell by 2% between 2015 and 2016, taking over 920,000 people out of the global workforce last year;
- The number of people over the age of 65 exposed to heatwaves increased by 125 million between 2000 and 2016;
- Climate change contributed in part to a 46% increase in the frequency of droughts, floods, and wildfires since the 1980s (That said, the researchers found deaths from weather-related disasters did not increase during that time period—though according to the University College London's Nick Watts, lead author on the study, "that may simply be because the data is not over a long enough period of time to isolate that trend");
- Climate change has exacerbated the spread of Dengue fever by enabling the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes to live longer and in more diverse regions—even as other disease rates have declined over time. Overall, the report found around the globe cases of dengue fever have doubled every decade since 1990, with 58.4 million cases of the disease and 10,000 related deaths in 2013 alone;
- Exposure to dangerous levels of air pollution worldwide rose by 11.2% since 1990; and
- Climate change has exacerbated allergies in America, with U.S. residents reporting substantially longer exposure to ragweed pollen, for instance, in 2016 than in 1990.
The report concluded, "The human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible," adding, "The delayed response to climate change over the past 25 years has jeopardized human life and livelihoods."
However, the researchers cited some "glimmers of progress" on climate change, including advances in limiting heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions after the 2015 Paris agreement. Howard Frumkin, one of the authors of the study from the University of Washington School of Public Health, said, "There are some very severe warning signs, but there are some hopeful indicators too. … Given the right treatment and aggressive efforts to prevent things from getting worse, I think there's hope."
The report urged health professionals to "communicate the threats and opportunities" of climate change. They stated that while climate change "threatens to undermine the past 50 years of gains in public health," an approach to slow the planet's warming could be "the great health opportunity of the 21st century."
Frumkin said the report "makes clear … that fighting climate change is disease prevention," adding, "Preventing illnesses and injuries is more humane, more effective and more economical than treating people once they've become sick."
Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change, said, "The Lancet Countdown's report lays bare the impact that climate change is having on our health today. It also shows that tackling climate change directly, unequivocally and immediately improves global health. It's as simple as that" (AP/Sacramento Bee, 10/30; Rice, USA Today, 10/30; Nesbit, New York Times, 10/30; Doucleff, "Goats and Soda," NPR, 10/31).
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