Climate Change Is a 'Code Red' Health Emergency: Report

Kathleen Doheny

October 21, 2021

The impact of climate change on our health has become a "code red" situation, and international efforts to fight the pandemic may be missing opportunities to help the planet while helping ourselves, according to The Lancet Countdown's sixth annual report.

The report summarizes the conclusions of researchers from 43 academic institutions and UN agencies who examined the relationship between health and climate change across five domains using more than 40 indicators.

"This year, what we are seeing is every single indicator where we tracked the impact of climate change on health shows it is going in an upward trend," said Marina Romanello, PhD, lead author and research director for The Lancet Countdown.

The situation, for the first time, is code red for a healthy future, she said. "Things are worsening very rapidly."

The report, published Wednesday, comes before the start of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26). The conference is slated to begin in Glasgow, United Kingdom, on October 31 and run through November 12. Some experts see the upcoming summit as the last chance to turn things around.

Is it too late? "No," Romanello said, "but it's starting to get late."

"The new report underscores the tremendous opportunity to improve global health by investing in ambitious policies to reduce climate change and prepare for its impacts," said John Kotcher, PhD, research assistant professor at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, Fairfax, Virginia, who was not involved in the report.

COVID-19, Climate Change, and Health

Of particular concern, say Romanello and colleagues, is that many current COVID-19 recovery plans are not compatible with the Paris Agreement, the legally binding international treaty on climate change.

One goal is to limit global warming to <2° C, and preferably 1.5°, compared to preindustrial levels. The failure of recovery programs to achieve this goal will have long-term adverse health implications, Romanello said.

"Governments are spending trillions of dollars on the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic," Romanello said. Those funds could be used to take a safer and healthier low-carbon path, ''but we have yet to do so," she said.

Romanello said that of the money that is being spent on COVID-19 recovery, less than one dollar in five are expected to go toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the overall impact "is likely to be negative." As a result, ''we are recovering from a health crisis in a way that's putting our health at risk."

It is possible to respond to climate change and to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic simultaneously, and doing so is preferable, according to the authors of the report.

Rapid de-carbonization, according to the report, could prevent most of the 3.3 million deaths attributed to air pollution annually, as well as the 842,000 deaths linked with excess consumption of red meat.

Key Findings

Among the many adverse effects of climate change on health summarized in the report:

  • Up to 19% of global land surface was affected by extreme drought in a given month. This indicator had not been more than 13% for the years 1950–1999.

  • An increase in drought conditions threatens water security and food productivity and increases the risk for wildfires and exposure to pollutants.

  • Record temperatures in 2020 especially affected persons older than 65 years and children younger than 1 year. The record-breaking temperatures in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada in summer 2021 would have been ''almost impossible without human-caused climate change."

  • Rising global temperatures result in smaller yields of crops, straining food systems.

  • This year, the World Health Organization found that just over half of the countries that responded to its survey (37 of 70) had a national health and climate change strategy in place. That number has not increased since 2018. Obstacles cited were lack of finances, lack of skilled personnel, lack of research and evidence, and COVID-19 restrictions.

  • Only 0.3% of the total funding for adaptation to climate change has been allocated for use by health systems.

  • Climate change creates ideal condition for the spread of infectious diseases, such as dengue fever, chikungunya, Zika, malaria, and cholera — potentially undoing decades of progress that has been made in controlling these diseases.

Pathways to Improvement

The report concludes: "The 2021 report of the Lancet Countdown finds a world overwhelmed by an ongoing global health crisis, which has made little progress to protect its population from the simultaneously aggravated health impacts of climate change."

"We can still turn the tide, if we do COVID recovery right," Romanello said.

A Lancet editorial on this issue concluded: "Succumbing to the climate emergency is not inevitable."

But the report also warns: "A fossil-fuel driven recovery, although potentially meeting narrow and near-term economic targets, could push the world irrevocably off course for the ambitions of the Paris Agreement, with enormous costs to human health."

Healthcare Practitioners,' Individuals' Roles

What can healthcare practitioners do to improve the situation? "First, get informed," Romanello said.

When counseling patients, go beyond traditional health advice, such as regularly exercising and reducing sugar and salt intake. "They should also say, 'Reduce your exposure to air pollution, reduce your car journeys, reduce your consumption of red meat.'' '

On an individual level, she said, people can be aware of the effects of climate change on health and that improving climate is a priority. They can demand government action and be smart about personal choices.

"The way we decide to move, warm our houses, eat our food ― all those choices will make a tremendous difference," Romanello said.

Healthcare professionals are well aware of the dangers of climate change, said Kotcher, of George Mason University, who surveyed more than 4600 healthcare professionals on the topic. The results of the survey were published in The Lancet earlier this year.

He found that healthcare professionals feel a responsibility to educate the public and policymakers about the issue but that there are barriers to action, such as time constraints.

Lancet. Countdown report on health and climate change. Abstract, Editorial

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