Published January 17, 2019
Co-authored by Kristie Ebi, MPH, PhD, UW Professor in Global Health and Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences
The New England Journal of Medicine — Climate change is already adversely affecting human health and health systems, and projected climate change is expected to alter the geographic range and burden of a variety of climate-sensitive health outcomes and to affect the functioning of public health and health care systems. If no additional actions are taken, then over the coming decades, substantial increases in morbidity and mortality are expected in association with a range of health outcomes, including heat-related illnesses, illnesses caused by poor air quality, undernutrition from reduced food quality and security, and selected vectorborne diseases in some locations; at the same time, worker productivity is expected to decrease, particularly at low latitudes. Vulnerable populations and regions will be differentially affected, with expected increases in poverty and inequities as a consequence of climate change. Investments in and policies to promote proactive and effective adaptation and reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions (mitigation) would decrease the magnitude and pattern of health risks, particularly in the medium-to-long term.
Climate change is causing injuries, illnesses, and deaths, with the risks projected to increase substantially with additional climate change, threatening the health of many millions of people if there are not rapid increases in investments in adaptation and mitigation. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes a powerful case for “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transportation, and cities, with the aim of limiting global warming to 1.5°C by reducing global net human-related emissions of carbon dioxide by approximately 45% from 2010 levels by 2030. This would reduce the risks of exceeding critical thresholds damaging to natural systems and human societies while providing more time for adaptation.
Health professionals have leading roles to play in addressing climate change. They can support health systems in developing effective adaptation to reduce the health risks of climate change, promote healthy behaviors and policies with low environmental impact, support intersectoral action to reduce the environmental footprint of society in general and the health care system specifically, and undertake research and education on climate change and health. The pervasive threats to health posed by climate change demand decisive actions from health professionals and governments to protect the health of current and future generations.