Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Health and Climate Change:  an Urgent Need for Action

Michelle A. Williams, Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health 
Ashish K. Jha, Director, Harvard Global Health Institute; K.T. Li Professor of Health Policy, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

An elderly woman being treated for malaria at Fundacao de Medicina Tropical do Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil (Credit: Brazil photos / Getty images) Click to Enlarge.
The human face of climate change is its impact on our health.  Higher temperatures intensify air pollution and respiratory illness.  Changing weather patterns lead to drought and then famine, while increasing rains in other areas will create the breeding ground for disease and pandemics.  While the policy changes needed to blunt climate change are surely substantial, the cost of ignoring the science behind climate change will be felt through its harmful effects on our health. Recently, the CDC cancelled its Climate and Health Summit out of fear of retribution from the Trump administration.  Working with Al Gore and others, Harvard worked to revive the meeting, which was held in Atlanta on February 16.   This meeting reminded us that universities have a unique responsibility that we ensure a platform for key scientific issues that have a meaningful effect on people’s health.  Climate change is one such critical issue.

A century ago, one in three children died before age five.  That number has been cut by 90 percent because of global investments in public health.  Climate change, unchecked, puts these gains, and lives, at risk.  Weather shifts from climate change will change the availability and reduce the nutritional content of food.  The levels of protein and crucial micronutrients in key staple crops will drop, exposing billions of the world’s poorest people to worsening malnutrition.  The gains we have made in saving the lives of children are fragile – and unlikely to withstand the challenges created by climate change unless we act now.

The effects of climate change on health will not stop with agriculture.  Burning fossil fuels release a wide array of air pollutants that are a leading cause of asthma, heart disease, and strokes in our country and around the globe.  Children are particularly vulnerable, and so are the elderly.  The increasing number of heat waves  is dangerous, but the interaction between high temperatures and air pollution becomes especially deadly.

The changing climate will likely shift the geographical range of insects that carry disease, including ticks carrying Lyme disease and mosquitoes which carry malaria.  The increasing number of infectious disease outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika appear to be linked, at least in part, to ongoing environmental shifts that exacerbate climate change.  It is not hard to imagine that if we alter an ecosystem where we and other species live in equilibrium, there will be meaningful consequences.

Transitioning to energy sources that reduce carbon pollution will help the U.S. meet its commitments under the recent Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, importantly, will also benefit the health of all Americans.  In a nation where our government already pays for the health care of our elderly and many of our children, reducing health burdens not only saves lives, but it can also be fiscally responsible.  Our colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently found that the health savings to the American people from the Environmental Protection Agency’s new carbon standards will far outweigh the cost to industry within five years.

Read more at Health and Climate Change: an Urgent Need for Action

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