Climate change ‘could destroy 50 years of medical progress’

The threat to human health from climate change is so great that it could undermine the past 50 years of medical progress, a new report from an influential British medical journal has warned.

The Lancet Commission’s paper Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health warns that the “potentially catastrophic” risks of climate change have hitherto been underestimated.

Commission co-chair Professor Anthony Costello said “Climate change has the potential to reverse the health gains from economic development that have been made in recent decades – not just through the direct effects on health from a changing and more unstable climate, but through indirect means such as increased migration and reduced social stability.”

These direct risks include the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as heat waves, floods, droughts and storms, while indirect impacts come from changes in infectious disease patterns, air pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, involuntary migration, displacement and conflicts.


However, Costello also claimed that immediate, concerted political action could turn this potential disaster into “one of the greatest opportunities to improve global health this century”.

The paper proposed the formation of a new global independent body on climate change and health which would monitor and report every two years on the health impacts of climate change, and the progress of mitigation efforts.

It also calls for the rapid phase-out of coal power stations, a transition to walking-friendly cities, the introduction of an international carbon price and a global agreement on the transition to a low carbon economy.

Immediate health benefits from tackling climate change include fewer respiratory diseases, and fewer heart/obesity issues from people walking and cycling more often.

There are also health benefits from changes to diet which might arise from a concerted effort to tackle climate change, such as eating less red meat.

”Climate Change is a medical emergency,” said Commission co-chair Professor Hugh Montgomery.

“It thus demands an emergency response, using the technologies available right now. Under such circumstances, no doctor would consider a series of annual case discussions and aspirations adequate, yet this is exactly how the global response to climate change is proceeding.”

Generational threat

Commission co-Chair Professor Peng Gong, from Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, added: “The health community has responded to many grave threats to health in the past.

“It took on entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry, and led the fight against HIV/AIDS.  Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to human and environmental health of our generation.”

Responding to the report in a New York Times op-ed, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby welcomed the findings but added that health was symptomatic of a larger problem.

He wrote: “In addition to highlighting the effects of climate change, we must address the root of the problem.

“In so doing, we will discover how the benefits of assuming moral responsibility and taking immediate action — not just on matters related to health, but also world economy and global policy — far outweigh the cost of remaining indifferent and passive.”

The Archbishop’s backing of climate action follows the Pope’s long-awaited encyclical last week, which called for an end to fossil fuels and the adoption of a circular economy.


Environmental charity Friends of the Earth said the report should kick-start action from international governments, ahead of the Paris talks in December.

FoE head of policy Mike Childs said: “When health professionals shout ‘emergency’, politicians everywhere should listen. 

“Already tens of thousands of lives are lost in the UK every year because of foot-dragging on climate change – radical action is urgently required to avoid catastrophe.

“The Government must end its cheer-leading for fossil fuels by stopping fracking, and make the UK a world leader in energy efficiency and renewable power.”

Video: The 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change

 Brad Allen

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie