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YSPH Researchers Contribute to Landmark Report on Health and Climate Change

November 15, 2019

Climate change is already damaging the health of the world’s children and threatens the wellbeing of an entire generation unless the world meets Paris Agreement targets to limit global warming to well below 2°C, according to a major new report co-authored by scientists from the Yale School of Public Health and published in The Lancet.

The report, The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, is a comprehensive annual analysis that tracks how international actions — or the lack thereof — toward meeting Paris Agreement climate goals are impacting human health across 41 key indicators.

Two researchers from the Yale School of Public Health — Dr. Robert Dubrow, professor of epidemiology and director of the Yale Climate Change and Health Initiative, and Dr. Jodi Sherman, associate professor of anesthesiology and of epidemiology (Environmental Health Sciences), contributed to the 2019 findings and served as co-authors. The report is a collaboration between 120 experts from 35 institutions representing every continent.

“The report emphasizes that if the world continues on its business-as-usual pathway with regard to greenhouse gas emissions, the health of every child born today will be profoundly endangered by climate change, from cradle to grave,” Dubrow said. “Populations around the world are increasingly dealing with extreme weather events, food and water insecurity and changing patterns of infectious disease. The health of current and future generations is at stake.”

Key findings from the report include:

  • As temperatures rise, harvests will shrink, threatening food security and driving up food prices. Infants and small children will be particularly vulnerable to malnutrition and related health problems such as stunted growth, weakened immune systems, and long-term developmental problems.
  • Children will be among the first to suffer from infectious diseases spurred by rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. Over the past 30 years, the area of coastline suitable for the spread of Vibrio bacteria, which cause diarrheal disease and wound infections, has increased by 30% in the Baltic and Northeastern U.S., where sea water has been warming rapidly. There has been an upward trend in the climate suitability for transmission of dengue fever, which is carried by mosquitos, with nine of the 10 most hospitable years occurring since 2000. Climate suitability for malaria transmission, which is especially harmful to children, continues to increase in highland areas of Africa due to warming.
  • Through adolescence and into adulthood, a child born today will be breathing more toxic air, driven by continued burning of fossil fuels and made worse by rising temperatures. Young people whose lungs are still developing are especially vulnerable. Air pollution is known to contribute to reduced lung function, worsening asthma and increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

The report calls for the health impact of climate change to be at the forefront of the agenda when world leaders meet for a major U.N. Climate Conference (COP25) next month.

“Rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land use, transportation, buildings, and industrial systems are needed in order to change course,” said Sherman, who is also affiliated faculty with the Yale Climate Change and Health Initiative. “The health professions have a special responsibility to deliver this message, and to take the lead by reducing health care’s own out-sized emissions.

New Key Indicators

Sherman and Dubrow contributed two new indicators to the 2019 Lancet Report. Dubrow and his colleague Dr. Dung Phung at Griffith University in Australia studied the benefits and harm of air conditioning. They found air conditioning to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, global air conditioning use in 2016 was estimated to reduce heatwave-related mortality by 23% compared with the complete absence of air conditioning. On the other hand, it also confers harms by contributing to climate change, worsening air pollution, substantially adding to peak electricity demands on hot days and enhancing the urban heat island effect.

Sherman and her colleague Dr. Matthew Eckelman at Northeastern University led development of a new indicator on greenhouse gas emissions in the health care sector. They found that in 2016 alone, greenhouse gas emissions from the global health care sector were approximately 4.6% of global total emissions. Further, per capita U.S. emissions are substantially higher than those of any other country and have risen steadily over the 2007-16 study period.

Urgent Action Needed

Dr Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, is calling on clinical and global health communities to mobilize in response to the latest findings.

“The climate crisis is one of the greatest threats to the health of humanity today, but the world has yet to see a response from governments that matches the unprecedented scale of the challenge facing the next generation,” Horton said. “With the full force of the Paris Agreement due to be implemented in 2020, we can’t afford this level of disengagement. The clinical, global health and research communities need to come together now and challenge our international leaders to protect the imminent threat to childhood and lifelong health.”

In a joint statement, Dubrow and Sherman said: “If the world’s actions were to match the ambition of the Paris Agreement pathway (limiting global warming to well below 2˚C), a child born today would see the world reach net-zero emissions by their 31st birthday, ensuring that the worst health impacts of climate change would be averted and that coming generations would benefit from cleaner air, safer drinking water and more nutritious food.”

Despite the scale of the challenge, the report offers some reason for cautious optimism. Growth in renewable energy sources accounted for 45% of total growth in power generation in 2018; while use of electricity as a fuel for road transport grew by almost 21% globally from 2015 to 2016; and low-carbon electricity accounted for a third of total electricity generation in 2016.

The report’s authors are calling for bold action to turn the tide on the enormous health impact of climate change in four key areas:

  • Rapid, urgent and complete phase-out of coal-fired power worldwide.
  • Ensuring high-income countries meet international climate finance commitments of $100 billion a year by 2020 to help low-income countries.
  • Increasing accessible, affordable, efficient public and active transport systems, particularly walking and cycling, such as the creation of cycle lanes.
  • Making major investments in health system adaptations to ensure health damage of climate change doesn’t overwhelm the capacity of emergency and health services to treat patients.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on November 15, 2019