Lancet Report Warns Planetary Crisis Will Spur More Infectious Diseases, Climate Refugees

A woman carries a child through a flood in Indonesia in 2017. (Photo: World Meteorological Organization/Flickr/CC)

Lancet Report Warns Planetary Crisis Will Spur More Infectious Diseases, Climate Refugees

While raising alarm about an "increasingly extreme and unpredictable environment," experts emphasize that "the world is faced with an unprecedented opportunity to ensure a healthy future for all."

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging and world leaders preparing for a climate summit at the end of the month, an annual report published Wednesday in The Lancet highlights governments' failure to ambitiously address the climate emergency and related health impacts.

"It's time to realize that no one is safe from the effects of climate change."

"If nothing else will drive the message home about the present threat that climate change poses to our global society, this should," Lachlan McIver, a Doctors Without Borders physician not involved with the new report, toldThe Washington Post. "Your health, my health, the health of our parents and our children are at stake."

The new "Countdown" analysis raises alarm about the increasing risk of chikungunya, dengue, malaria, and Zika outbreaks and warns that due to rising seas, hundreds of millions of people face flooding, intense storms, and soil and water salinification that could force mass migration.

Echoing several studies released in anticipation of the COP 26 summit in Scotland, the report says that "even with overwhelming evidence on the health impacts of climate change, countries are not delivering an adaptation response proportionate to the rising risks their populations face."

However, in addition to its a "code red" warning that failing to dramatically cut planet-heating pollution will "lock humanity into an increasingly extreme and unpredictable environment" and "on the current trajectory, climate change will become the defining narrative of human health," the report emphasizes that "the world is faced with an unprecedented opportunity to ensure a healthy future for all."

Experts from dozens of academic and United Nations institutions collaborated on the report, which tracks 44 indicators sorted into five categories: climate change impacts, exposures, and vulnerabilities; adaptation, planning, and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co-benefits; economics and finance; and public and political engagement.

"This is our sixth report tracking progress on health and climate change and unfortunately we are still not seeing the accelerated change we need," said lead author Maria Romanello in a statement. "At best the trends in emissions, renewable energy, and tackling pollution have improved only very slightly," she continued, describing recent extreme weather exacerbated by rising temperatures as "grim warnings" of the consequences of delayed action.

Countdown executive director Anthony Costello noted some of the specific findings: "The 2021 report shows that populations of 134 countries have experienced an increase in exposure to wildfires. Millions of farmers and construction workers could have lost income because on some days it's just too hot for them to work. Drought is more widespread than ever before."

"But the good news is that the huge efforts countries are making to kick-start their economies after the pandemic can be orientated towards responding to climate change and Covid-19 simultaneously," he added. "We have a choice."

Romanello explained that the trillions of dollars that governments are pouring into pandemic recovery provide "an opportunity to take a safer, healthier, low-carbon path," but so far less than a fifth of that money is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"We are recovering from a health crisis in a way that's putting our health at risk," she said. "It's time to realize that no one is safe from the effects of climate change."

The report points out that governments around the globe are still dumping massive amounts of money into subsidies for the oil and gas industry, despite conclusions from climate scientists and energy experts that fossil fuels must stay in the ground for the sake of the planet and human health.

Recent research and newly released guidelines from the World Health Organization have highlighted how the fossil fuel industry harms humanity by degrading air quality. Advocating for a "low-carbon transition that prioritizes the health of all populations," the experts acknowledge that "even in the most affluent countries, people in the most deprived areas overwhelmingly bear the burden of health effects from exposure to air pollution."

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"Promoting equitable climate change mitigation and universal access to clean energies could prevent millions of deaths annually from reduced exposure to air pollution, healthier diets, and more active lifestyles, and contribute to reducing health inequities globally," the report says. "This pivotal moment of economic stimulus represents a historical opportunity to secure the health of present and future generations."

Noting the inequitable production and distribution of coronavirus vaccines--due to hoarding by wealthy nations and opposition to policies like waiving intellectual property rights by Big Pharma and policymakers who prioritize corporations over public interest--the experts make clear that "neither Covid-19 nor climate change respect national borders."

"Without widespread, accessible vaccination across all countries and societies, [the virus] and its new variants will continue to put the health of everybody at risk," the report says. "Likewise, tackling climate change requires all countries to deliver an urgent and coordinated response."

A policy brief aimed at U.S. lawmakers was released alongside the report. It says that the government "must rapidly implement an all-encompassing, evidence-informed response to climate change that prioritizes and optimizes health and equity."

"Lowering greenhouse gas emissions is a prescription," Renee Salas, an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital who helped write both documents, told the Post. "The oath I took as a doctor is to protect the health of my patients. Demanding action on climate change is how I can do that."

The report and brief come amid debates in Washington, D.C. about a sweeping package to invest trillions of dollars into climate action and social programs over the next decade. Passage of the Build Back Better legislation is being held up by a few right-wing Democrats.

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