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We've completely underestimated the catastrophic impacts of climate change

Reservoir california droughtReutersThe bottom of the Almaden Reservoir near San Jose, California, January 2014.

We’ve severely underestimated the health impacts of climate change.

So much so, in fact, that we could be on track to undo the last 50 years of gains in development and global health.

That’s all according to a report published this week in the British medical journal The Lancet.

A commission led by researchers at University College London (UCL) estimates that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events will dramatically increase and that the number people exposed to extreme rainfall will be four times higher than it was in the 1990s. Some people’s exposure to droughts will triple.

The direct health impacts will come from heat waves, floods, droughts and storms, but the indirect impacts, such as changes in infectious disease patterns, pollution, malnutrition, mass migrations, and conflicts will be just as impactful.

Fast action is needed

The report also states politicians who fail to act to implement changes and tackle those issues is at the core of the problem, and that the technologies and financing methods to address the problem exist.

“In essence, whether we respond to “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century” is no longer a technical or economic question — it is political,” the report says.

Texas floodReutersFloodwaters along Brays Bayou in southwest Houston, Texas May 26, 2015.

Commission Co-Chair Professor Hugh Montgomery, director of the UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance, told UCL News that that climate change was a “medical emergency” and that “It thus demands an emergency response, using the technologies available right now.”

Montgomery continued the analogy by saying that during a medical emergency, no doctor would just have annual case discussions on it, but that exactly that approach was used in climate change proceedings.

Combatting climate change would improve health…

Global efforts to tackle climate change would present a great opportunity to improve public health around the world.

Improving air quality and burning less fossil fuel could reduce respiratory diseases, the report found, while walking and cycling instead of relying on cars or public transport could cut traffic accidents and reduce obesity, diabetes, stroke, and coronary heart disease rates.

“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,” Commission co-Chair Professor Anthony Costello, Director of the UCL Institute for Global Health told UCL News.

Smog ChileReuters/Ueslei MarcelinoSmog shrouds Chile’s capital Santiago.

…but human nature could stand in the way of global change

But in order to achieve those goals much more needs to be done, whether at international and national levels and also need to include actions from governments and from individual groups and people. “An effective international agreement will be one that supports stronger efforts everywhere and at every level,” the report states.

This commission pointed out though, that the low-carbon future a healthy earth would need, is intricately linked to whether human societies can provide it.

“The difficulty, essentially, is ourselves: the tendency of humans to ignore or discount unpleasant facts or difficult choices, the nature of companies and countries to defend their own rather than collective interests and the narrow, short term horizons of most human institutions, which feed into the difficulties of global negotiations,” the report states.

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