Climate change debate: putting health first

Climate change debate: putting health first

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Climate change

Despite the enormous global attention being paid to climate change, its fallout on health is only now being recognised

Recent studies on climate change have painted a very grim picture of its immediate and long-term fallout on health. The trend has been exacerbated over the last few years during which extreme weather events have caused devastation across every continent, with a direct impact on health and health services. Australia, Brazil, China, western Europe, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa, and South Sudan have been wracked by floods.  Wildfires have hit Canada, the USA, Greece, Algeria, Italy, Spain, and Türkiye, and record temperatures have scorched Australia, Canada, India, Italy, Oman, Türkiye, Pakistan, and the UK.

All these events have left massive death and destruction in their wake. At the same time, they have taken a terrible toll on health. Heat waves are affecting psychological well-being on a global scale. According to a 2022 Lancet study, acute temperature increase, heatwaves, and humidity have been associated with worsened mental health outcomes and increased suicidality. Droughts have been found “to disrupt agricultural production, affect livelihoods, and cause food and water scarcity and other hardships that affect family relationships, increase stress, and negatively impact mental health, with differences between genders.”

Heatwaves have emerged as the recent manifestation of climate change across the globe. And the Lancet study starkly emphasizes this. In 2012–2021, the study points out,  children younger than one year experienced 600 million more person-days of heatwaves, and adults older than 65 years endured 3·1 billion more than in 1986–2005. In 2021 alone, people older than 65 years in Canada experienced a record of 47 million more person-days of heatwaves, and children under 1 year suffered 2·4 million days than annually in 1986–2005.

It was much more so in 2022 when various parts of the world witnessed record heatwaves. Data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reveals 2022 was the sixth-warmest year on record from January through August, with a global average temperature 1.55 degrees higher than the 20th-century average. The summer of 2022, the study highlights, was the hottest on record for Europe and China, the second-hottest for North America and Asia, and the fifth-hottest for planet Earth since record-keeping began in 1880.

Heatwaves, in turn, caused wildfires and a humanitarian fallout. In Australia alone, the fires directly caused some 450 deaths, 1300 emergency asthma presentations, and 1120 cardiovascular and 2030 respiratory admissions, in addition to worsening mental health outcomes and displacing 47 000 people, reveals the Lancet study. In South Asia, the full health impacts of lost income increased hospitalisations, and food and energy insecurity have not been quantified yet.

Floods, as we already are aware, have wrought havoc in Pakistan, upending lives of tens of thousands of people. The World Health Organization has sought psychosocial support and mental health services for the flood-affected to cope with the enormous losses they have experienced and the destruction they have witnessed.

Although the world is witnessing an unprecedented focus on climate change, its fallout on health is something whose scale and magnitude is only just being recognized. But perhaps not to the extent, it should be. A greater awareness of the health risks that climate change poses can galvanize public opinion in favor of taking decisive action to combat it.

Read more: Fact-checking health in 2024

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