Climate change is still “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”

Two recent reports add to the growing call for linking climate change laws with public health.

From the U.K., the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change followed up on its 2009 announcement that global warming “is the 21st century’s greatest threat to human health” by issuing a new report last week that also labels climate change as a singular opportunity to improve public health.

Why? Because increased government regulation of GHG emissions will result in a number of improved health outcomes. For example, reducing and lancet graphicthen finally eliminating coal-fired electricity generation not only reduces CO2 levels but does the same for particulate matter, which leads to decreased morbidity and mortality from respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Likewise government promotion of green space and public transit infrastructure (including bike paths) not only reduces transportation-related emissions but also engages people in more physical activity, thereby lowering their risk of heart disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes. Having healthier people translates to lower medical bills (and increased productivity), a big financial impact given the cumulative cost of chronic disease. In sum, opines the Lancet Commission: “Health puts a human face on what can sometimes seem to be a distant threat.”

Over the next ten years, the Commission proposes policies that represent “no regret” options (those with “co-benefits” in UNFCCC-speak), meaning that they “lead to direct reductions in the burden of ill-health, enhance community resilience, alleviate poverty, and address global inequity.” The new report lays out 10 specific ones, but these four sum up their big picture approach: 1) investing in climate change and public health research,lancet graphic 2 monitoring, and surveillance; 2) financing climate resilient health systems world-wide; 3) phasing out coal from the global energy mix; and 4) encouraging transition to cities that promote healthy lifestyles with clean energy, public transport, and green space.

Given our tracking of U.S. health care providers’ increasing engagement with climate change, we note one specific call for action by the Lancet Commission: the creation of an independent and international Countdown to 2030: Global Health and Climate Action coalition that will monitor action taken on climate change’s health impacts and enable health professionals lead the response to these health threats.

Polish coal fired utilityFrom the U.S., the EPA has created a fact sheet to emphasize similar connections between climate change regulation and public health when explaining the benefits of its Clean Power Plan rules promulgated under the Clean Air Act in accordance with the President’s Climate Action Plan. The Agency highlights that by 2030, the new rules will cut carbon pollution from the power sector by approximately 30% from 2005 levels and that this cut will decrease the soot and smog that make people sick. Specifically, it estimates climate and health benefits worth between $55 and $93 billion per year due to avoiding 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children. The EPA calculates that these benefits outweigh the annual costs of the plan, estimated at $7.3 to $8.8 billion. The bottom line message:  “From the soot and smog reductions alone, for every dollar invested through the Clean Power Plan, American families will see up to $7 in health benefits.”