The Guardian • Issue #2104

GREEN NOTES

Health and climate

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2104

Dr Anshu Banerjee, Director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at the World Health Organization (WHO): “While awareness of climate change has increased, actions to safeguard the lives of those at most risk has barely scratched the surface of what’s needed. For climate justice to be achieved, this must be urgently redressed.”

The WHO has issued a report titled Climate change across the life course with particular emphasis on the young, on pregnant women and older people. It identifies a number of specific physical and mental health impacts that arise due to different climate hazards. Some examples from the report:

High temperatures are associated with adverse birth outcomes, primarily preterm birth and stillbirth, as well as hypertension and gestational diabetes in pregnancy. Heatwaves affect cognitive function, and therefore learning for children and adolescents, while increasing heart attacks and respiratory complications among older people.

Ambient air pollution increases the likelihood of high blood pressure during pregnancy, low birth weight, preterm birth, and negative impacts on foetal brain and lung development. It raises the risk of respiratory illness among children and older people, who also face greater risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and pneumonia.

Climate-related natural disasters have significant mental and physical health impacts.

Flooding and drought reduce access to safe water and food supplies, increasing diarrhoeal diseases and malnutrition.

Wildfires have been shown to increase respiratory disorders and cardiovascular mortality rates for older people.

“A healthy environment underpins health throughout life, enabling healthy growth and development in childhood and adolescence, healthy pregnancies and healthy ageing,” said Anayda Portela, WHO scientist. “There is an urgent need to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to build climate resilience; to take specific actions that protect health at these various life stages, and to ensure continuity of health services for those most at risk when climate disasters occur.”

Each of the past 12 months (June 2023 – May 2024) has set a new global temperature record for the time of year. This has resulted in the highest global average temperature on record, at 1.63°C above the 1850 - 1900 pre-industrial average. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) predicts that the global mean near-surface temperature for each year between 2024 and 2028 will be between 1.1°C and 1.9°C higher than the 1850 - 1900 baseline with at least one of these years likely to set a new temperature record.

The recent World Health Assembly approved an important resolution to elevate health and climate to a top priority, marking a clear shift in focus from just health, and setting the stage for scaled up action against one of humanity’s greatest threats. Climate will be integrated across the technical work of the WHO at global, regional and national levels. The Assembly called on member states to promote cooperation between national health ministries and relevant national climate change authorities to address the interlinkages between the environment, the economy, health, nutrition and sustainable development.

Climate change is one of the major threats to global public health. Failure to act urgently to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will result in the loss of millions of lives affected by more extreme weather. Already the effects of climate change are hitting hard with every continent experiencing extreme weather events and loss of lives, homes, infrastructure, and crops. Every fraction of a degree of warming matters.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton hides his refusal to act on climate change behind the fig leaf of nuclear energy that will never materialise. Yet the Australian government continues to approve new toxic fossil fuel projects and the expansion of existing ones as if there were no tomorrow. There will not be a tomorrow if they do not break their ties to the fossil fuel industry and act in the interests of the people and planet.

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