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: Climate change is ‘greatest threat’ to global public health, say 200 medical journals

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COVID-19 is not the biggest threat facing humanity.

Global warming packs the “greatest threat” to public health, argues an unprecedented joint statement out Tuesday from more than 200 U.S. and international medical journals.

The medically-trained editorial staffs of such leading publications as The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine and others insist that global leaders must do more or be faced with a global crisis for health, especially for vulnerable age groups and developing nations, “that will be impossible to reverse.”


Higher temperatures have brought increased dehydration and renal function loss, dermatological malignancies, tropical infections, and cardiovascular and pulmonary morbidity and mortality.

And they urge climate-change power brokers to be more conscientious of health impacts when they set goals for cutting emissions and slowing the planet’s temperature rise — a shortcoming in policies to date, they said in the letter.

Health impacts have surged in a relatively short time. In just the past 20 years, heat-related mortality among people over 65 has increased by more than 50%. Air pollution last year caused the premature death of nearly half a million babies, according to the State of Global Air 2020.

Broadly, higher temperatures have brought increased dehydration and renal function loss, dermatological malignancies, tropical infections, adverse mental health outcomes, pregnancy complications, allergies and cardiovascular and pulmonary morbidity and mortality.

The conditions disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, including children, older populations, ethnic minorities, poorer communities and those with underlying health problems.

The authors stressed that those in power can’t wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to abate before addressing climate change. Two major policy meetings are set for the coming months.


The authors stressed that those in power can’t wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to abate before addressing climate change. Two major policy meetings are set for the coming months.

The first is a China-hosted gathering in October to discuss how the world can better value and protect natural capital — in fact, it’s what some observers are calling a potential “natural new deal.”

In November, the closely watched gathering of U.N.-directed climate leaders takes place in Glasgow, where peer pressure could be tightening on economic giants the U.S. and China and on all industrial powers to help the developing world better adapt.

“The consequences of the environmental crisis fall disproportionately on those countries and communities that have contributed least to the problem and are least able to mitigate the harms. Yet no country, no matter how wealthy, can shield itself from these impacts,” the joint letter said.

“Allowing the consequences to fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable will breed more conflict, food insecurity, forced displacement and zoonotic disease — with severe implications for all countries and communities. As with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are globally as strong as our weakest member,” they wrote.


‘Allowing the consequences to fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable will breed more conflict, food insecurity, forced displacement and zoonotic disease.’


— Global doctors and nurses in joint action letter

The medical groups said that the global financial and communication response, though spotty, to the COVID-19 pandemic could be a template for the level and degree of emergency response necessary for climate change.

Scientists have said that while the Earth will warm, there’s still time to curb the most extreme temperature gains. Even a major typically oil-friendly watchgroup has called for change.

“Huge investment will be needed, beyond what is being considered or delivered anywhere in the world. But such investments will produce huge positive health and economic outcomes,” the professionals wrote. “These include high-quality jobs, reduced air pollution, increased physical activity, and improved housing and diet. Better air quality alone would realize health benefits that easily offset the global costs of emissions reductions.”

The medical professionals acknowledged that steps are underway. Governments, financial institutions and businesses are setting targets to reach net-zero emissions, including targets for 2030. The cost of renewable energy is dropping, largely competing with traditional fossil fuels
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that create heat-trapping emissions. And already, many countries are aiming to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030.

But the healthcare voices find great gaps between pledges and practical fixes, particularly with extreme weather crowding healthcare facilities already.

Hurricane Ida, the latest in what’s expected to be another strong Atlantic storm year, caused dozens of deaths across several states from flash flooding and other impacts. Earlier this summer, hundreds died in a record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest. Wildfire smoke, increasingly bringing dangerous levels of air pollution, caused spikes in emergency room visits.


‘The current strategy of encouraging markets to swap dirty for cleaner technologies is not enough.’


— Medical editorial shared in 200 journals

“These promises are not enough. Targets are easy to set and hard to achieve. They are yet to be matched with credible short- and longer-term plans to accelerate cleaner technologies and transform societies,” the medical pros said. “This insufficient action means that temperature increases are likely to be well in excess of 2° Celsius, a catastrophic outcome for health and environmental stability.”

The joint letter expressed worry that the destruction of nature does not have parity of esteem with the climate change and global warming elements of the crisis, and stressed that every single global target to restore biodiversity loss by 2020 was missed.

Biodiversity is seen as key for developments ranging from aiding carbon capture with trees to providing the buffer between animals and humans that may be necessary to stop or slow worrisome pathogens. Mosquitos, for instance, are migrating north as Earth warms.

“The current strategy of encouraging markets to swap dirty for cleaner technologies is not enough,” the editorial reads. “Governments must intervene to support the redesign of transport systems, cities, production and distribution of food, markets for financial investments, health systems and much more.”

Related reading:

Study suggests even short-term exposure to air pollution hurts older men’s thinking and memory

Opinion: Climate change has finally reached a tipping point that’s good

More than 4 in 10 people breathe unhealthy air, says American Lung Association — people of color 3 times as likely to live in polluted places

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