The Heat Is Online

Climate Changes Put Billions of People at Health Risk

Rapid change threatens foundations of human health – study, Sept. 5, 2009


Rapid changes already underway to the Earth's climate, ecosystems and land cover threaten the health of billions, undermining key human life-support systems and threatening the core foundations of healthy communities worldwide, according to a new report.


The disruption represents the greatest public health challenge of the 21st century and leaves poor populations mostly in developing nations most vulnerable – even though they contribute the least to many of the problems. The report was published jointly by the Worldwatch Institute and the United Nations Foundation, two nonprofit organizations working on global policy.


"The breadth and depth of the changes we are wreaking on the environment are  imperiling not only many of the other species with which we share the ecological stage, but the health and wellbeing of our own species as well," said the report's author, Samuel S. Myers of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, in a statement.


The report outlines a series of public health threats – food and water scarcity, altered distribution of infectious diseases, increased air pollution, natural disasters, and population displacement – that collectively threaten large segments of the human population. But most of the death and disability from these threats is fundamentally preventable, Myers said, if the political will can be mobilized to take strong, concerted action.



The report was released the same day developing countries said they risked "total destruction" unless the rich stepped up the fight against climate change to a level that even the United Nations says is out of reach.



The comments came from Barcelona, where the final preparatory talks are taking place before next month's climate meeting in Copenhagen on a global treaty to replace the flawed Kyoto Protocol. Many in the international community have pegged Copenhagen as a make-or-break moment in the effort to stem greenhouse gas emissions and avert the worst impact of climate disruption, but deep divides on how to achieve necessary cuts – and compensate victims – threaten to derail those talks.


Every 30 minutes, the equivalent of a jumbo-jet full of children die from environment-related illnesses.


Keeping up pressure, the poor on Wednesday said that even the most ambitious offers on the table – by the European Union and far tougher than most nations – fell far short of what's necessary in a new U.N. climate pact.


"The result of that is to condemn developing countries to a total destruction of their livelihoods, their economies. Their land, their forests will all be destroyed. And for what purpose?" said Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping of Sudan, chair of the Group of 77 and China, representing poor nations.


"Anything south of 40 (percent) means that Africa's population, Africa's land mass is offered destruction," he said in a news conference.


The Worldwatch/UN Foundation report buttresses that argument. What's needed, it concludes, is unprecedented technical and financial assistance from the international community to help developing countries adapt to the health impacts of accelerating environmental change.


"We must broaden our focus beyond the traditional health sector to evaluate, and plan for, widespread changes in access to fresh water, agricultural production and mitigation," Myers wrote. "As living standards rise, people will be less likely to be swept aside by the next extreme weather event, epidemic or crop failure."


Many of these impacts, the report noted, are well underway. Rapid changes in climate and land use are altering the distribution of malaria, schistosomiasis and other infectious diseases. Every 30 minutes, the equivalent of a jumbo-jet full of children die from environment-related illnesses.


"This is a tragedy of immense dimensions," Myers wrote, "yet there is far less focus on the problem than it deserves. And it is the poor who bear the main burden."