The story so far: Even as countries are meeting at the ongoing Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt, a recent report by Lancet, has traced in detail the intimate link between changing weather events and their impact on the health of people. The 2022 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Health at the Mercy of Fossil Fuels points out that the world’s reliance on fossil fuels increases the risk of disease, food insecurity and other illnesses related to heat.
For long, much of the world believed that those predicting the harmful effects of climate change were part of a doomsday cult with a touch of the dramatic. It is now increasingly clear that the deleterious effects of climate change not only have the potential to severely disrupt life, but that they are already upon us. Climate change is not an isolated incident or occurrence, but a global phenomenon, leaving its impact on almost every aspect of life, sweeping in its train nations across the world, irrespective of whether they contributed to it or not. The 2022 Lancet Countdown report comes at a time when the world is face-to-face with the threat of climate change. It says: “Countries and health systems continue to contend with the health, social, and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and persistent fossil fuel overdependence has pushed the world into global energy and cost-of-living crises. As these crises unfold, climate change escalates unabated. Its worsening impacts are increasingly affecting the foundations of human health and wellbeing, exacerbating the vulnerability of the world’s populations to concurrent health threats.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health — clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.
The Lancet report indicates that rapidly increasing temperatures exposed people, especially vulnerable populations (adults above 65 years old and children younger than one) to 3.7 billion more heatwave days in 2021 than annually in 1986–2005.
The changing climate is affecting the spread of infectious disease, raising the risk of emerging diseases and co-epidemics. For instance, it records that coastal waters are becoming more suited for the transmission of Vibrio pathogens. It also says that the number of months suitable for malaria transmission has increased in the highland areas of the Americas and Africa.
The WHO has predicted that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 2,50,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.
Every dimension of food security is being affected by climate change. Higher temperatures threaten crop yields directly, with the growth season shortening for many cereal crops. Extreme weather events disrupt supply chains, thereby undermining food availability, access, stability, and utilisation. The prevalence of undernourishment increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and up to 161 million more people faced hunger in 2020 than in 2019. This situation is now worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the report underscores.
The war has led many countries to search for alternative fuels to Russian oil and gas, and some of them are still turning back to traditional thermal energy. The report argues that even if implemented as a temporary transition, the renewed clamour for coal could reverse whatever gains have been made in air quality improvement and push the world towards a future of accelerated climate change that would threaten human survival. Instead, a transition to clean energy forms would undeniably be the sustainable way ahead.
But the report is not all gloom and doom. A health-centred response to the coexisting climate, energy, and cost-of-living crises provides an opportunity to deliver a healthy, low-carbon future, it states. It adds that a health-centric response might be starting to emerge. Measuring the rising coverage of health and climate change in the media, the governments’ commitment to assess and address the threats from climate change, are positive signs, the report stresses. This is the way a health-centred response would work – it would reduce the likelihood of the most catastrophic climate change impacts, while improving energy security and creating an opportunity for economic recovery. Improvements in air quality will help prevent deaths resulting from exposure to fossil fuel-derived ambient PM2.5, and the stress on low-carbon travel and increase in urban spaces would result in promoting physical activity which would have an impact on physical and mental health. The report also calls for an accelerated transition to balanced and more plant-based diets, as that would help reduce emissions from red meat and milk production, and prevent diet-related deaths, besides substantially reducing the risk of zoonotic diseases. The report indicates that this sort of health-focused shifts would reduce the burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases, reducing the strain on health-care providers, and leading to more robust health systems.
These incrementals notwithstanding, it is true that data shows that the pace and scale of climate change adaptation, planning, and resilience is insufficient. In this context, the report calls for global coordination, funding, transparency, and cooperation between governments, communities, civil society, businesses, and public health leaders, to reduce or prevent the vulnerabilities that the world is otherwise exposed to.