Major Lancet report says climate change could undo 50 years of health gains

By Umair Irfan | 06/23/2015 08:03 AM EDT

The changing climate stands to overturn nearly half a century of gains in human longevity and well-being, but aggressive action to cut carbon could save lives and be a net benefit for humanity.

That’s the message in a special publication today from The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal.

The report from the Commission on Health and Climate Change lays out the health impacts of a warming world and offers policy advice on how to address medical concerns and prevent them from getting worse.


"What this report is trying to do is reframe the risk that climate change poses to our health," said co-author Ian Hamilton, an assistant professor at University College London.

The commission pooled expertise from epidemiologists, doctors, nurses, climatologists, ecologists and policy researchers in Europe and in China. The report lists 45 authors.

"Our starting point was to map out the impacts of climate change," Hamilton said. "From there, we attempted to look at what actions would need to be taken to mitigate the health effects."

Bit by bit, they found mounting evidence that rising greenhouse gas concentrations are already rippling through the medical sector. Weather events are shifting toward extremes, leading to more severe storms, flooding and drought. Heat waves are also poised to become more numerous and severe.

Such events can cause injuries and emergency room visits, but the changing climate also has oblique effects on health, such as reducing food security, altering the range of disease-spreading ticks and mosquitoes and harming mental health.

Rising temperatures also tend to degrade air quality, whether through dusty dry plains, soot from wildfires or ozone in cities, leading to asthma attacks and heart troubles.

"This has health implications in the here and now," Hamilton said. "We have the tools, but they are being misdirected."

A call for more research, less coal and a carbon price

The report offers 10 policy recommendations to curb the morbidity and mortality stemming from climate change. Proposals include investing in climate and public health research, phasing out coal-fired power generation, pricing carbon and valuing the health care avoided disease burden from mitigating greenhouse gases.

Some doctors said the report is a call to arms for physicians to push for action on climate change.

"The responsibility of the health sector is to stand up and say, ‘This is a problem, and we need to do something about it,’" said Dr. Emily Senay, assistant clinical professor of preventive medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. "If you address the drivers of climate change, in many regards you are addressing the driver of poor health around the world."

Cholera patient actor
Cholera epidemics often accompany widespread flooding. An actor demonstrates the symptoms of victims to villagers in East Africa, while caregivers stress the need to chlorinate drinking water. | Data courtesy of the Congressional Research Service.

In a press release, Dr. Norman Edelman, senior scientific adviser for the American Lung Association, said, "Taking steps to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, like the Clean Power Plan proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, can reduce other pollutants at the same time, resulting in immediate health benefits."

"The Lancet report underscores the terrible consequences for human health if we don’t start reducing the dangerous carbon pollution fueling climate change — and dramatic benefits for people the world over from taking action now," echoed Kim Knowlton, senior scientist and deputy director of the Science Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a release.

Hamilton noted that the commission’s report is not the first time The Lancet has taken a stab at climate change, but previous reports focused on the worst-case scenarios of global warming and their devastating health consequences, whereas the current report highlights the benefits of addressing climate change and touts "no regrets" actions that benefit the environment and health.

"To me, the big difference here is, instead of all the bad stuff, the report says, ‘Here are all the good things that are going to happen if we actually do climate mitigation,’" said George Thurston, a professor of environmental medicine at the New York University School of Medicine.

"The value of the health benefits from clean air are going to more than offset the costs of climate change mitigation," he added. "This is, I think, an inspirational message."