September 9, 2021

Climate change is 'greatest threat to global public health,' 200+ medical journals warn

Daily Briefing

    In an unprecedented joint editorial published on Saturday, the editors of more than 200 medical journals worldwide labeled a 1.5-degree-Celsius rise in global temperatures as the "greatest threat to global public health"—and urged world leaders to prioritize emission reductions to avoid "catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse."

    Although medical journals have produced joint statements before, this marks the first time an editorial has been coordinated at this scale, the New York Times reports. The efforts involved medical journals—including The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, and the British Medical Journal—from every continent, according to the Times, accounting for perspectives from a wide range of medical and health disciplines.

    How health systems can fight climate change at the grassroots level

    'The greatest threat to global public health'

    According to the Times, global temperatures are currently expected to increase by about 3 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. The authors cautioned that "a global increase of 1.5°C above the preindustrial average and the continued loss of biodiversity risk catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse."

    "Indeed, no temperature rise is 'safe,'" the editors noted in the editorial. The authors cite research demonstrating the dangers of increasing temperatures, including how, over the past 20 years, "heat-related mortality among people over 65 years of age has increased by more than 50%." In addition, increased temperatures have exacerbated "dehydration and renal function loss, dermatological malignancies, tropical infections, adverse mental health outcomes, pregnancy complications, allergies, and cardiovascular and pulmonary morbidity and mortality," and are "hampering efforts to reduce undernutrition."

    Moreover, according to the editorial, increased temperatures pose direct and indirect threats to public health systems. Between Covid-19, lethal heat waves, increased wildfires that cause dangerous levels of pollution, and deadly storms, our health care systems are already overloaded. The authors explain that a rise in global temperatures could cause an increase in severe environmental issues—and increase the likelihood of future pandemics and infectious diseases. 

    An unprecedented call to action

    This call to action comes ahead of several international climate and environment conferences, in the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Climate Change Conference, where world leaders will gather to discuss commitments to reduce emissions, the Times reports. The authors urge governments and world leaders to collaborate and fund efforts to combat climate change with the same sense of urgency used to fight Covid-19. 

    Specifically, since developed nations tend to contribute more to emissions, the authors charged wealthy countries with the responsibility of leading climate change initiatives.

    For instance, while acknowledging that many wealthy nations have already promised to cut emissions by employing cleaner technology, the editorial said governments need to take further action to "support the redesign of transport systems, cities, production and distribution of food, markets for financial investments, health systems, and much more." The authors also called on these nations to go beyond their public goals to dedicate $100 billion to climate resiliency plans in developing nations, including money to bolster health care systems in those countries.

    "While low and middle income countries have historically contributed less to climate change, they bear an inordinate burden of the adverse effects, including on health," Lukoye Atwoli, the editor-in-chief of the East African Medical Journal and a co-author of the editorial, said in a statement. "We therefore call for equitable contributions whereby the world's wealthier countries do more to offset the impact of their actions on the climate."

    "The greatest threat to global public health is the continued failure of world leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5° C and to restore nature," the authors concluded in the editorial. "Urgent, society-wide changes must be made and will lead to a fairer and healthier world. We, as editors of health journals, call for governments and other leaders to act, marking 2021 as the year that the world finally changes course." (Choi-Schagrin, New York Times, 9/7; Sommer, NPR, 9/7)

    How health systems can fight climate change at the grassroots level

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    Health care is a major contributor to climate change and some governments have started taking action, but health systems don't need to wait for policy changes to make sustainability a priority. Advisory Board's Miles Cottier and Paul Trigonoplos share how some systems have committed to reducing their emissions footprint.

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