Medics prescribe action on climate change

Climate change is not just an ecological problem. It is not all about drowning polar bears. It is also bad for your health – but the good news is actions to fight it are good for you.

Back in May, The Lancet published a forty-page report on the medical effects of climate change, the longest in the highly respected journal’s history. It is still freely available to non-subscribers.

The paper was dubbed “the Stern Report for medics” by climatologist Professor Mark Maslin, recalling the influential 2006 review of the economics of climate change.

It concluded that climate change was the greatest threat to public health this century. A combination of increased disease, food and water insecurity, extreme weather events, rising sea levels and lack of shelter will put billions at risk. These will be exacerbated by armed conflict, mass migration and ecological collapse with developing countries the worst hit.

To say the least, it was not lightest of reading material.

Well-off countries such as our own will not be unaffected. Thousands died during Europe’s 2003 heatwave, which also killed around 2,000 people in the UK. Most were carried off by the heat, but a significant proportion was probably killed by air pollution. Presumably more casualties will follow – perhaps your own elderly relatives among them.

Making this kind of link between the broad threat of climate change and more personal concerns such as health is a key strategy to persuade the public to curb their own emissions.

The Lancet’s editor Richard Horton said much the same at the launch on November 25 of an entire edition dedicated to the “public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”. The event, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, was attended by health minister Andy Burnham. I and the rest of the audience also heard video messages in support from UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and the head of the World Health Organization.

A large number of medical students were also in the audience. I spoke to a few who were members of Medsin – the Medical Students International Network. If you are a medical student, you really should get involved with this bunch, if you aren’t already. P&P works alongside them.

The series of five papers is the first exploration of how people’s health will benefit from taking steps to cut emissions, both in the UK and abroad. They focus on urban transport, emissions from household energy use, farming and food, low-carbon electricity production and the effects of ‘short-lived greenhouse gas pollutants’ such as soot.

One of the more interesting observations is that a low-carbon transport system, with greater walking and cycling, would save both lives and CO2 emissions. It would cut heart disease and strokes in London by 10-20%, and make an impact on other health problems, such as depression. The impact would still be positive even after factoring in the greater chance of lethal car crashes from more cyclists being on the roads.

There would be a less substantial impact on health from improving the energy efficiency and ventilation of the UK’s homes. These effects would be related to improved temperatures, lower exposure to indoor pollutants and radon (a radioactive gas that seeps out of the ground in some areas) and fewer carbon monoxide poisonings.

Much of the media seized upon the farming paper. This concluded that halving the sector’s emissions by 2030, aligned with the government’s target for the nation as a whole, will require a 30% cut in meat production. If this is reflected by consumption, it will also cut the occurrence of heart disease by 15% through lower intake of saturated fat. Less meat eating would cut cancer rates and lower obesity too.

Not surprisingly, the National Farmers’ Union was livid, blasting the Department of Health’s acceptance of the report as “ill-informed and simplistic”.

Another paper gave a poke in the eye to the nascent geo-engineering lobby. Deliberately emitting sulphate aerosols, which have a cooling effect but form dangerous particulates, would also have a substantial health impact.

So, if you are confronted by a climate change deniers or sceptics, ask them if they trust their doctors. Then tell them that the heads of eighteen colleges of medicine across the world described the prospect of failure at the Copenhagen climate talks, which begin in Monday, as a “health catastrophe”.

But whether the health angle will trump the kind of tabloid hoo-hah we have seen over the hacked UEA e-mails, in the long-term at least, is quite another matter.


I see that Shared Planet 2009 in the fine city of Manchester has been and gone. It’s a rather important anniversary for me. I met my wife at Shared Planet 1999, at Warwick. The P&P website has the details.

Gareth Simkins is an environmental journalist who writes for The ENDS Report, the UK’s premier source of environmental business and policy news and analysis. He was active in P&P as a student and developed the Go Green campaign in 2003.

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