Feature

Without action, every child will be affected by climate change


 

As wildfires increase the likelihood of respiratory illnesses for residents in California and Queensland, Australia, a new report from the Lancet warns that such health risks will become increasingly common without action to address climate change. But, the authors stressed, it’s still possible to prevent some health effects and mitigate others.

Given the magnitude of the issue, lead author Nick Watts, MBBS, MA, framed the issue in terms of what an individual child born today will face in his or her future. If the world continues on its current trajectory, such a child will eventually live in a world at least 4º C above average preindustrial temperatures.

“We roughly know what that looks like from a climate perspective,” said Dr. Watts, executive director of The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change, during a telebriefing on the report.

“We have no idea of what that looks like from a public health perspective, but we know it is catastrophic,” he continued. “We know that it has the potential to undermine the last 50 years of gains in public health and overwhelm the health systems that we rely on.”

Health sector a significant, growing contributor

The report described the changes to which climate change has already contributed and addresses both the health threats and the way institutions and states are currently responding to those threats. It also included policy briefs specific to individual countries and an extensive appendix with projections data.

The authors noted that progress in mitigating fossil fuel combustion – the biggest driver of rising temperatures – is “intermittent at best,” with carbon dioxide emissions continuing to rise in 2018. The past decade has included 8 of the 10 hottest years on record. “Many of the indicators contained in this report suggest the world is following this ‘business as usual’ pathway,” the authors wrote.

In fact, the trend of coal-produced energy that had been declining actually increased 1.7% between 2016 and 2018. Perhaps ironically, given the focus of the report, “the health­care sector is responsible for about 4.6% of global emissions, a value which is steadily rising across most major economies,” Dr. Watts and colleagues reported.

The potential health risks from climate change range from increased chronic illness, such as asthma and cardiovascular disease, to the increased spread of infectious diseases, especially vector-borne diseases, including dengue fever, malaria, and chikungunya. Increases in the frequency and intensity of severe weather events can lead to increased acute and longer-term morbidity and mortality.

Though children will suffer the brunt of negative health impact from climate change, the effects will touch people at every stage of life, from in utero development through old age, the authors emphasized.

“Downward trends in global yield potential for all major crops tracked since 1960 threaten food production and food security, with infants often the worst affected by the potentially permanent effects of undernutrition,” the authors reported. Children are also most susceptible to diarrheal disease and infectious diseases, particularly dengue.

Mitigating actions available

But the report focused as much on solutions and mitigation strategies as it did on the worst-case scenario without action. Speakers during the telebriefing emphasized the responsibility of all people, including physicians and other health care providers, to play a role in countering the public health disaster that could result from inaction on climate.

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