Story at a glance

  • Scientists and medical professionals have raised red flags on how public health is intricately connected to climate change.
  • Heat waves, storms and floods kill thousands of people and disrupt millions of lives. They also threaten health care systems when people need them most.
  • One report found that fine-particle pollution created when burning fossil fuels causes approximately 4 million premature deaths every year.

More and more research is linking climate change to public health issues and now finally, experts say those concerns are being taken seriously.

As world leaders discussed climate change policies during COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, that revolved around preventing Earth’s temperature from warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius, some health experts walked away feeling as though their research and concerns were finally being listened to. 

Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, spoke with The Washington Post and explained that after attending five COP summits she noticed a shift in public health taking on a renewed relevance in climate change discussions this year.

“The science is clear that warming greater than that could be catastrophic for people’s health, and that every tenth of a degree averted matters,” Miller told The Post.


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For the first time in the organization's history, the World Health Organization (WHO) sponsored a health pavilion at COP26 to highlight the role climate change plays in public health.

WHO also put out a report specifically for COP26 that was titled, “Special Report on Climate Change and Health.” It detailed how climate change and health were intimately linked, citing that extreme weather events like heat waves, storms and floods kill thousands of people and disrupt millions of lives. In the process they also threaten health care systems when people need them most. 

WHO also explained that changes in weather and climate threaten food security and drive up food, water and vector-borne diseases like malaria. 

Burning fossil fuels also poses a threat to public health, with WHO’s report stating that “the burning of fossil fuels is killing us. Climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity. While no one is safe from the health impacts of climate change, they are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.”

WHO’s special report included 10 recommendations for world leaders to consider when implementing climate change policies, as well as a #HealthyClimatePrescription letter, which also consisted of urgent calls to action on climate change policies. The document has received more than 3,000 signatures from health professionals around the world.

Maria Neira, WHO director of environment, climate change and health, said in a COP26 report that, “Bringing down air pollution to WHO guideline levels, for example, would reduce the total number of global deaths from air pollution by 80% while dramatically reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change.”

The interconnected nature of public health and climate change was also illustrated in a recent report published in Nature Communications. That report found that fine-particle pollution created when burning fossil fuels causes approximately 4 million people to die prematurely, every year. 

“If you come in with an asthma attack to my emergency department, that’s your primary diagnosis. But yet … climate change is driving pollen levels to be higher, so it is actually a secondary diagnosis,” said Renee Salas, an emergency medicine doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital who also attended COP26 this year, according to The Post. 

Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attribute public health problems to climate change. The CDC says disruptions of physical, biological and ecological systems can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature death deaths related to extreme weather events.


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Published on Nov 22, 2021