Why we must see the climate crisis through the lens of human health
Reckitt’s global director of sustainability, environment and human rights, David Croft, explains why the link between the planet’s health and human health can no longer be ignored.
The climate crisis is triggering a health crisis far greater than the recent pandemic – and one that no vaccine can fix. As extreme heatwaves and devastating wildfires swept across Southern Europe last month, the World Health Organisation reported that more than 1,700 lives were lost as a result. Sadly, this is just the latest evidence of the deadly impacts of climate change.
Separately, in recent weeks, the UN General Assembly declared a healthy environment a human right, calling out climate change and environmental degradation as some of the most pressing threats to humanity’s future.
The link between the planet’s health and human health can no longer be ignored.
Nearly 13 million deaths per year are already linked to environmental factors such as air pollution, infectious disease, extreme weather events, and unsafe drinking water [Prüss-Üstün et al. 2016]. The burden of temperature-related mortality alone is projected to reach 4.6 million per year by the end of the century – on a par with the current impact of obesity and diet-related illness [Bressler 2021]. It is placing already-strained healthcare systems under even greater pressure.
In less than 100 days from now, leaders of governments, business, and civil society will begin assembling in Sharm el-Sheikh for COP 27, to accelerate global efforts to confront the climate crisis. The devastating consequences of rising temperatures will be all around them. The host nation Egypt is itself highly vulnerable to water scarcity, droughts, rising sea levels, and other adverse impacts of climate change (IMF).
In its latest report, which UN secretary general, António Guterres described as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”, the IPCC said the window for action is closing. Alongside our partners in industry, academia, medicine and NGOs, we will use our voice at COP 27 to urgently highlight the ways in which changes to climate and the environment impact human health.
Extreme heat has a very direct impact on health and livelihoods. But water scarcity and drought are also a rising threat. Of the 326 trillion gallons of water on earth, 97.5% is now either salt water or polluted. In any given year, an estimated 55 million people contend with drought. Thanks to population growth and climate change, usable water is getting even scarcer. Droughts claim lives indirectly too, putting food systems, infrastructure, and availability of care at immediate risk.
Rising inflation is further fuelling global inequality, sending more than a quarter-billion more people into poverty this year, according to Oxfam International. The most vulnerable communities, already paying the heaviest price of a climate crisis they didn’t cause, are now even harder hit, leading to worse health outcomes.
But as outgoing COP president Alok Sharma urged, ‘though the world has changed, our resolve has not’. The recent heatwave is a timely and deadly reminder that we need to think not just about inflation and taxation, but devastation. As the leadership race intensifies, it is imperative that climate and health become leading themes in the debate.
As major actors in the health sector, we are focused on helping people protect themselves against the impact of climate change on their health, hygiene, and nourishment, as well as playing our part in combatting climate change and reducing our own environmental impacts as fast as possible. At the same time, we are investing heavily in research and innovation to try to ensure we stay one step ahead of growing health threats, from water scarcity to insect-borne diseases, so our brands and products continue to help people protect themselves. We will continue to partner with leading experts and NGOs to ensure the most vulnerable communities have access to the essential resources, infrastructure and protection they need to stay safe.
As COP 27 approaches, we hope the leadership candidates, governments, policymakers, industry, academia and NGOs will see the climate crisis through the lens of human health. Only when we recognise and take urgent collective action to address the links between human health and planetary health, will we have any hope of truly mitigating the crisis that is playing out before our eyes.
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