The greatest threat to global public health into the future is the continued failure of world leaders to take adequate action to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C and to restore nature.
That is the warning to politicians from top health professionals and journals across the world. Published as an editorial it was coordinated by the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC), a coalition of leading UK health bodies including The Royal Colleges of Physicians, GPs and Surgeons, the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association, the British Medical Journal, and The Lancet.
“Health professionals have long been concerned about the harm to health from climate change, but our voices have not been heard clearly in the global debate. This unprecedented joint publication shows our global concern and how we want to be part of acting on climate change.”Dr Richard Smith, Chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change
Current promises are not enough
For decades, health professionals and health journals have warned of the severe and growing impacts on health from climate change and the destruction of nature. Heat related mortality, health impacts from destructive weather events and the widespread degradation of ecosystems essential to human health are just a few of the impacts that we are seeing more of due to a changing climate. These impacts disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, including children and the elderly, ethnic minorities, poorer communities and those with underlying health conditions.
The editorial warns that while recent targets to reduce emissions and conserve nature are welcome, they are not enough and are yet to be matched with credible short and longer term plans. It urges governments to intervene to transform societies and economies, for example by supporting the redesign of transport systems, cities, production and distribution of food, markets for financial investments, and health systems.
Such investments will produce huge positive benefits, including high quality jobs, reduced air pollution, increased physical activity, and improved housing and diet. Better air quality alone would realise health benefits that easily offset the global costs of emissions reductions. These measures will also improve the social and economic determinants of health, the poor state of which may have made populations more vulnerable to the covid-19 pandemic.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, said:
“The risks posed by climate change could dwarf those of any single disease. The COVID-19 pandemic will end, but there is no vaccine for the climate crisis. The IPCC report shows that every fraction of a degree hotter endangers our health and future. Similarly, every action taken to limit emissions and warming brings us closer to a healthier and safer future.”
Global cooperation hinges on wealthy nations doing more
The editorial argues that sufficient global action can only be achieved if high-income countries do far more to support the rest of the world and to reduce their own consumption. Developed countries must commit to increasing climate finance: fulfilling their outstanding commitment to provide $100 billion a year, have a dual focus on mitigation and adaptation, including improving the resilience of health systems.
Crucially, the editorial argues that this money should be provided in the form of grants, rather than loans, and should come alongside forgiving large debts, which constrain the agency of so many low-income countries. Additional funding must be marshalled to compensate for inevitable loss and damage caused by the consequences of the environmental crisis.
Any warming makes our planet more unsafe, and the recent IPCC report shows that until the world has reached net-zero greenhouse gases the planet will continue to warm. We are already seeing these impacts globally and we already know that the consequences of the environmental crisis fall disproportionately on those countries and communities that have contributed least to the problem. A business as usual scenario would spell disaster for the planet. Governments must seize this opportunity to put forward ambitious climate goals for the sake of our health, for people worldwide and future generations.
Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet, said:
“Urgently addressing the climate crisis is one of the greatest opportunities we have for advancing the wellbeing of people worldwide. The health community must do more to raise its critical voice in holding political leaders accountable for their actions to keep global temperature rises below 1.5°C.”
“The recent examples of extreme weather all over the globe have brought into focus the reality that climate change is. We must act now lest it is too late. We owe it to the future generations.“Dr Peush Sahni, Editor-in-Chief of the National Medical Journal of India
The editorial was co-authored by 19 people, listed below, including the editors in chief of 17 health journals based around the world. It is supported – and published – by an international group of over 220 health journals.
Lukoye Atwoli, editor in chief, East African Medical Journal
Abdullah H. Baqui, editor in chief, Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition
Thomas Benfield, editor in chief, Danish Medical Journal
Raffaella Bosurgi, editor in chief, PLOS Medicine
Fiona Godlee, editor in chief, The BMJ (British Medical Journal)
Stephen Hancocks, editor in chief, British Dental Journal
Richard Horton, editor in chief, The Lancet
Laurie Laybourn-Langton, senior adviser, UK Health Alliance on Climate Change
Carlos Augusto Monteiro, editor in chief, Revista de Saúde Pública (Brazil)
Ian Norman, editor in chief, International Journal of Nursing Studies
Kirsten Patrick, interim editor in chief, CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal)
Nigel Praities, executive editor, Pharmaceutical Journal
Marcel GM Olde Rikkert, editor in chief, Dutch Journal of Medicine
Eric J. Rubin, editor in chief, NEJM (New England Journal of Medicine)
Peush Sahni, editor in chief, National Medical Journal of India
Richard Smith, chair, UK Health Alliance on Climate Change
Nicholas J. Talley, editor in chief, Medical Journal of Australia
Sue Turale, editor in chief, International Nursing Review
Damián Vázquez, editor in chief, Pan American Journal of Public Health