Study measures impact of climate change, and public's responsiveness

The emerging global climate-change crisis poses "clear and unprecedented opportunities for public health," says a paper published in The Lancet journal.

New research from 26 institutions, including the University of Washington School of Public Health, points to climate change as a looming public health emergency. But experts also note that an accelerated response over the past five years has created “clear and unprecedented opportunities for public health.”

In a report published Oct. 30 in The Lancet journal, leading doctors, academics and policymakers from across the world explored 40 unique indicators that measure the health effects of climate change and assess the world’s response. Those indicators range from the health effects of temperature change to fossil fuel subsidies and investment in coal capacity.

Howard Frumkin, UW professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, was one of the few U.S. authors for the global report.

“Climate change threats to health are not far off in time or space,” he said. “They are here, now, ranging from catastrophic storms to severe heat to more infectious diseases to longer allergy seasons.  The situation is urgent.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • Researchers noted a 46 percent increase in weather-related disasters since 2000, causing $129 billion in economic loss.
  • Undernutrition is the largest health impact of climate change, with a 6 percent decline in global wheat yields and a 10 percent fall in rice yields for each additional 1 °C rise in global temperature.
  • A record 175 million people were exposed to heatwaves in 2015.
  • 87 percent of cities globally are in breach of World Health Organization air pollution guidelines, exposing billions of people to unsafe levels of atmospheric particulate matter.
  • Transmission of dengue, a mosquito-borne disease, has increased by 3 percent to 5.9 percent.

Despite slow progress, experts cited encouraging signs. The potential benefits and opportunities of responding to climate change are staggering, they said, and could lead to cleaner air, safer food and water, and more nutritious diets.

“Cities across the country are stepping up with effective heat action plans, to protect their most vulnerable citizens during heat waves,” Frumkin said. “Similarly, our nation is shifting our energy supply, with less reliance on coal, the most serious contributor to climate change, and more reliance on renewables such as wind and solar.  This reduces the carbon intensity of our economy—and in health terms, that means preventing many serious health threats.”

Research partners included the World Bank, World Health Organization, University College London, Tsinghua University, and the University of Colorado-Boulder. Together with 20 other organizations, they formed the Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change.

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