Climate change a ‘medical emergency’, Lancet experts warn

'medical emergency'

Creative Commons: Mario Goebbels, 2014

Climate change represents a ‘medical emergency’, but tackling the crisis could be the “greatest health opportunity of the 21st Century” according to a major new report in the world’s leading medical journal, the Lancet.

The international team of researchers behind the report show that the threat to human health from climate change is so great, it could undermine the last fifty years of gains in development and public health.

Professor Hugh Montgomery, Commission co-Chair and Director of the UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance said:

Climate Change is a medical emergency. It thus demands an emergency response, using the technologies available right now. Under such circumstances, no doctor would consider a series of annual case discussions and aspirations adequate, yet this is exactly how the global response to climate change is proceeding.


Rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and more frequent extreme weather events are already hitting communities across the world, with the world’s poorest and most vulnerable bearing the brunt.

Other consequences of climate change and the carbon economy – such as air pollution, greater spread of diseases, food insecurity and malnutrition, water scarcity, and increased migration, conflict and social unrest – are also all expected to increasingly impact human health.

But while the impacts of climate change are huge, the opportunities of climate action are also significant and the Commission shows that many policies to address climate change are “no-regret”, in that they will reduce ill health, enhance resilience, alleviate poverty and address inequality.

By investing in clean energy over fossil fuels for example, governments will not only be reducing the climate threat, immediately improving air quality and reducing respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, but will also be supporting a technology which has proven to improve the lives of the world’s poor faster and cheaper than outdated coal.

Professor Anthony Costello, Commission co-Chair and Director of the University College London (UCL) Institute for Global Health said:

Climate change has the potential to reverse the health gains from economic development that have been made in recent decades – not just through the direct effects on health from a changing and more unstable climate, but through indirect means such as increased migration and reduced social stability.  However, our analysis clearly shows that by tackling climate change, we can also benefit health, and tackling climate change in fact represents one of the greatest opportunities to benefit human health for generations to come.

The report emphasises the need for a rapid phase-out of coal from the global energy mix, for the 2200 coal plants currently in the pipeline to be replaced with renewable energy and for an end to fossil fuel subsidies.

Confirming that long-term economic growth and energy access can only be achieved with renewable energy, the Commission recommends the rapid expansion of access to renewable energy, and a transition to greener, cleaner, and healthier cities, and the establishment of an international carbon pricing mechanism.

It also calls for greater investment in climate change and health research, and scaling-up finance for climate resilient health systems.

Genon K. Jensen, Founder and Executive Director, Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) said:

With this new report, heads of state and governments participating in the Paris talks have the evidence base at hand to support an ambitious agreement, a swifter move away from fossil fuels and a decarbonisation path that will boost the health of their citizens… The recommendation on healthy energy couldn’t be more timely and spot on – building in health impacts of national energy policies into regulations and decision making processes. It makes absolute public health and economic sense.

Made up of a global team of multidisciplinary researchers from the worlds of health, climate and economics, the Lancet Commission is the latest voice to join the growing chorus calling for a fast and just transition away from dirty fossil fuels and towards a future powered by 100 per cent renewable energies.

As with other health threats before it, such as tobacco, HIV/AIDS and polio, the medical community is well placed to unite actors around climate change and offer a human face to the crisis.

The Commission’s report comes hot on the heels of Pope Francis’ moral call for climate action.

Joining a growing number of leaders from across sectors, including scientists, business leaders, economists, trade unions and youth calling for a shift away from dirty energy, this latest call is yet another important show of commitment ahead of the UN climate talks in Paris this December.

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