The increase in extreme weather and air pollution due to climate change is seriously harming human health, and a world of food shortages, infectious diseases, floods, and extreme heat will produce life-long health risks for a child born today unless countries move swiftly to curb carbon pollution, according to the latest annual climate and health update published this week by the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet.
“Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate,” said Nick Watts, co-author of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change. “Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants,” and that “persistent and pervasive” health damage in early childhood carries life-long consequences.
While there’s still a narrowing window of time to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis, the study documents changes that are already affecting human health. “The authors found that 220 million more people over 65 were exposed to heat waves in 2018 compared with 2000,” The Guardian reports, with Europe particularly at risk. “The 2019 report, coinciding with wildfires raging in Australia, also found that human exposure to fires had doubled since 2000. Wildfires not only cause deaths and health damage but had significant economic and social impacts.”
“Introducing policies to limit emissions and cap global warming would see a different outcome,” Reuters writes, citing the Lancet team. “In that scenario, a child born today would see an end to coal use in Britain, for example, by their sixth birthday, and the world reaching net-zero emissions by the time they were 31.”
But “on a ‘business as usual’ pathway, with little action to limit climate change, it found that amid rising temperatures and extreme weather events, children would be vulnerable to malnutrition and rising food prices, and the most likely to suffer from warmer waters and climates accelerating the spread of infectious diseases such as dengue fever and cholera,” the news agency adds. “Among the most immediate and long-lasting health threats from climate change is air pollution, the researchers said.”
“Without immediate action from all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, gains in well-being and life expectancy will be compromised, and climate change will come to define the health of an entire generation,” Watts told a briefing in London, UK.
“A child born today faces two possible futures,” InsideClimate News writes. “In one, the world continues to burn fossil fuels, making the child more likely to develop asthma from air pollution, at greater risk of vector-borne diseases, and more vulnerable to anxiety as extreme weather events threaten his community. In the other, those risks are diminished because the world has responded quickly and adequately to climate change, with a large-scale shift away from fossil fuels.”
“Our children recognize the climate emergency, and demand action to protect them,” said University College London professor and Lancet Countdown Co-Chair Hugh Montgomery. “We must listen, and respond. This year, the accelerating impacts of climate change have become clearer than ever. The highest recorded temperatures in western Europe, and wildfires in Siberia, Queensland, and California triggered asthma, respiratory infections, and heat stroke.”
The Lancet’s policy brief on Canada, produced in partnership with the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), concludes that more than half of the 450,000 Canadians who evacuated due to wildfires since 1980 were displaced in the last decade, and transport-related air pollution has killed more than 1,000 since 2015, National Observer reports. The Canadian summary echoes the focus on future generations in the global Countdown, looking ahead to the health impacts of increased wildfires, tick-borne diseases, and limited access to food in Northern communities.
“These exposures not only pose a threat to public health, but also result in major economic and social burdens,” the report states. “Human health impacts of fire include death, trauma, and major burns, anxiety during wildfire periods, and post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression related to evacuations. Wildfire smoke also travels vast distances and increases asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease exacerbations.”
“Canada is warming far too quickly,” said CPHA Executive Director Ian Culbert. “The rise in average temperature is putting the health of Canadians at risk. Maintaining the status quo is no longer a viable option.”