Lead author Anthony Costello says that failure to act will result in an intergenerational injustice, with our children and grandchildren scorning our generation for ignoring the climate change threat –- with moral outrage similar to how we today look back on those who brought in and did nothing to stop slavery.

The Lancet medical journal and the University College London (UCL) Institute for Global Health have just released the final report of their year-long commission (every link you could want is here, key factoids below).  It represents one of the most definitive statements to date on the current and future health impacts of global warming.

Yet, even though this is an alarming report on the public health threat from human-caused climate change, it largely sticks with a low-ball reading of impacts from the 2007 IPCC report.  It assumes “medium-risk scenarios predicting 2–3°C rises by 2090″ while acknowledging “some leading climate scientists have raised the concern that the IPCC 2007 predictions are too conservative” and “recent observations confirm that, because of high rates of observed emissions, the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” — which would take us to 4–5°C warming by 2090 (see here).

The report makes clear that the “full impact” of climate change to human health “is not being grasped by the healthcare community or policymakers.”  [Duh!]  Indeed, the lead author, Anthony Costello, a pediatrician and director of UCL Institute for Global Health, said that “he had not realised the full ramifications of climate change on health until 18 months ago.”  Now he describes the threat as “clear and present danger” affecting “billions of people” not just polar bears and tropical forests.  The health impacts will be felt “all around the world –- and not just in some distant future but in our lifetimes and those of our children.”

The report notes that “Climate change will have devastating consequences for human health from”:

  • changing patterns of infections and insect-borne diseases, and increased deaths due to heat waves
  • reduced water and food security, leading to malnutrition and diarrhoeal disease
  • an increase in the frequency and magnitude of extreme climate events (hurricanes, cyclones, storm surges) causing flooding and direct injury
  • increasing vulnerability for those living in urban slums and where shelter and human settlements are poor
  • large scale population migration and the likelihood of civil unrest .

Here are some key quotes and factoids from the report:

  • Even the most conservative estimates are profoundly disturbing and demand action. (p1697 col 1)
  • The 12 warmest years on record within the past 150 years have been during the past 13 years.  (p1698 col 1)
  • Currently, a third of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a shoreline and 13 of the world’s 20 largest cities are located on a coast. More than a billion people could be displaced in environmental mass migration. (p1699 col 1)
  • Estimates show that small increases in the risk for climate-sensitive conditions, such as diarrhoea and malnutrition, could result in very large increases in the total disease burden. (p1701 col 1
  • The carbon footprint of the poorest 1 billion people is around 3% of the world’s total footprint; yet, these communities are affected the most by climate change. (p1701 col 2)
  • Malaria, tick-borne encephalitis, and dengue fever will become increasingly widespread. (p1702 col 2)
  • Half of the world’s population could face severe food shortages by the end of the century because rising temperatures take their toll on farmers’ crops. (p1704 col 2)
  • As people migrate away from areas deteriorated by gradual warming or destroyed by extreme weather events, they not only place substantial demands on the ecosystems and social infrastructures into which they migrate, but also carry illnesses that emerge from shifts in infectious-disease vectors. (p1719 col2)
  • Extreme weather events are not always handled well by rich nations [i.e. Katrina]. (p1719 col 2)
  • Farmers use about three-quarters of the world’s water supply: to grow 1kg of wheat requires around 1000L of water, whereas 1kg of beef takes as much as 15 000L. American or European diets require around 5000L of water per person every day, whereas African or Asian vegetarian diets use about 2000L per person every day. The social and political challenge of shifting dietary practices is enormous, especially as populations start to eat more meat as they climb out of poverty. (1720 col 2)
  • Climate change will … have an effect on psychosocial health. Increased spending on appropriate counselling or sympathetic health promotion, and the initiation of such services in poor countries, could be as important as planning to reduce new disease vectors. (p1721 col 1)

And they have a call to health experts to become informed on this key issue and speak out:

  • Joint statements from national institutes of medicine, representative bodies such as royal colleges, journal editors, organisations such as the Climate and Health Council, and university leaders worldwide, drawing upon a growing evidence base, can create a solidarity and authority that politicians will find hard to resist. (p1728 col 2)
  • We call for a collation of global expertise on the health effects of climate change leading up to a major conference within the next 2 years, which will define the priorities for management, implementation, and monitoring. Representation from developing countries should be emphasised. (p1729 col 2)

Kudos to The Lancet and the UCL Institute for Global Health.