Climate change already having drastic consequences for health

Heat waves, malnutrition and infections: global climate change is already having serious consequences for the health of the world’s population. This was the conclusion of a commission on health and climate protection of the journal "lancet" consisting of climate researchers, physicians and economists.

Climate protection must be significantly strengthened, she said in her alarmist plea, to avoid a global medical emergency. Under the name "the lancet countdown," the commission of 24 partners, including the world health organization (WHO), universities and the world bank, has already produced various reports on the consequences of climate change. Previously, the focus was on long-term effects, but now they are already looking at tangible impacts – with disturbing results.

From 2000 to 2016, about 125 million people over the age of 65 were exposed to heat waves worldwide, with corresponding health consequences, for example for the cardiovascular system. By 2050, the number of people suffering directly from the effects of heat waves could reach one billion.

Rising temperatures had also led to a 5.3 percent decline in labor productivity in rural areas among physically active people from 2000 to 2016, the report said. Especially in warmer regions, she says, it is too hot to work in the rain on more and more days.

"This is particularly important in agricultural areas," says anthony costello, one of the WHO’s directors. "The stadiums for the fubball world cup in qatar are being built at night under floodlights, you can’t do that in agriculture in africa.". However, further studies are needed to make accurate statements about deaths as a result of rising temperatures.

At the same time, the spread of some infectious diseases, such as dengue, is increasing, as disease-carrying mosquitoes are found in more and more areas. Since 1990, the number of dengue cases has doubled every decade – making the tropical fever the world’s fastest spreading disease.

In addition, the authors warn of the consequences of climate change on global hunger. The number of hungry people worldwide has initially declined significantly since 1990, according to the world food organization (FAO), but the trend has been reversing for the past few years. In 30 particularly poor countries in asia and africa affected by climate change, the number of undernourished people has risen from 398 million to 422 million since 1990, according to the "lancet".

For every degree of global temperature increase, global wheat yields would also decrease by 6 percent, and rice yields would decrease by as much as 10 percent. Warmer oceans also threaten fish stocks. 1.4 billion people are at risk of being undersupplied with key micronutrients such as zinc and omega-3 fatty acids.

Another major problem is the increasing air pollution: in 2015, 803,000 premature and, above all, preventable deaths in 21 asian countries were attributable to it. In addition, 87 percent of the world’s cities regularly exceeded the WHO’s fine particulate limits. "So we’re no longer talking about thousands or millions of people affected, but billions," said nick watts, executive director of "the lancet countdown".

According to the report, the number of weather-related natural disasters has also increased by 46 percent since 2000. In 2016 alone, this has caused economic damage of 129 billion US dollars (111 billion euros). The problem: 99 percent of the damage in poor countries is not insured.

Despite the dramatic findings, however, there are also hopeful signs, the experts emphasize. A number of countries around the world are preparing to phase out coal-fired power, which is responsible for a large proportion of greenhouse gases and air pollution. In addition, the growing share of renewable energies and intensified research in the field of electromobility have contributed to this development. "Around the globe, more and more answers are being sought, but not fast enough," watts explains.

Anthony costello adds: "we know from the past that climate change is not linear. It can also accelerate by leaps and bounds, which has had effects that we can’t even foresee yet."This represents a challenge, but also an opportunity to turn a looming medical emergency into one of the most significant advances in public health this century. This is above all a matter for the governments: "the health and economic benefits are enormous. Inaction, on the other hand, will cost lives on a gross scale that could have been avoided."

Former UN climate chief christiana figueres, who sits on the advisory board of "the lancet countdown," argues similarly: the report not only shows the health effects that climate change is already having on the world’s population, it also shows that the number of people affected by climate change is rising. It also makes clear that combating it directly, unequivocally and immediately improves global health: "most countries did not realize these possibilities when they drew up their climate plans for the paris agreement. We must do better. When a doctor tells us to take better care of our health, we do, and it’s important that governments do the same."