2021 climate disasters foreshadow future challenges for public health

2021 climate disasters foreshadow future challenges for public health
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Last week, the Biden administration launched the first federal initiative to address the health implications of global warming. The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity is long overdue and must be swiftly and adequately funded. For even as the world reels from the COVID-19 pandemic, another health crisis is already upon us — with deadly consequences. 

Climate change isn’t just damaging to the environment. Rising temperatures have devastating consequences for health. Around the world, extreme droughts and heat will push millions toward starvation. Forest fires and rising sea levels will displace entire populations, putting them at higher risk of trauma, infection and food insecurity. Disease-carrying insects will expand their reach. These are not hypothetical risks; just look at what’s happened in the U.S. this summer, as communities from Louisiana to Tennessee to Oregon and beyond have endured a ferocious hurricane, deadly flooding, unprecedented heat waves and historic wildfires that turned skies dark and clogged the air with soot from coast to coast.

All told, the World Health Organization estimates that climate change will directly cause 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050. And as we’ve seen so vividly throughout this pandemic, in a global health crisis, the world’s poor and vulnerable will suffer the most. 

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This is deeply distressing. But we cannot give up. 

If we can slow the planet’s warming, we can blunt some of the worst potential health consequences. Temperatures are all but certain to rise at least 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next two decades, the widely respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found. Still, staving off an additional half-degree of warming could stop the submersion of some island nations, combat more extreme crop and water shortages and save coral reefs that protect vital fisheries providing nutritious food to half a billion people worldwide. 

To achieve that goal, we need to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels over the next five years. And that will require cooperation on a global scale. 

It starts by adhering to our national commitment in the Paris Agreement to cut carbon emissions. As we work to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, we must ensure that we are rebuilding our economy in ways that also address the climate crisis. That means gearing our recovery spending toward investments in renewable energy capacity, clean transportation and sustainable infrastructure. And it means further incentivizing corporations to curb their climate impact. 

Meanwhile, we need to do everything in our power to mitigate the devastating health effects that have already begun — especially when it comes to our most vulnerable populations. That starts with significant investments to make our health systems climate-resistant: Reinforcing clinic buildings so they’re less vulnerable to floods, securing reliable backup power for hospitals in the paths of hurricanes, developing emergency plans to ensure uninterrupted care for the most fragile during storms or fires. We must also improve access to quality, affordable health care. And we must tackle the systemic inequities that condemn poorer communities in the U.S. and around the globe to live with polluted air and dirty drinking water. 

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The new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity can help to spearhead these efforts on the national level, but true change will require deep cross-sector collaboration. Fortunately, we are starting to see such efforts take root. 

On a global scale, the Green Climate Fund, which was established under the Paris Agreement, invests in new technologies and business models to establish proof-of-concept for carbon reduction initiatives in developing countries. Closer to home, several of my colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health are working with community health clinics to help them understand and prepare for the effects of climate change. Many more examples of cross-sector collaboration — everything from shifts to greener public transportation to programs that encourage parents to walk, not drive, their kids to school — will be on display this fall at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, known as COP26.

I’m encouraged by this momentum and have high hopes we can continue to build on it. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an enormous wake-up call on so many fronts, calling attention to warnings that we in the public health community have been sharing for years. Policy makers, business leaders, investors, activists and many others are now painfully aware of the vulnerability of our health systems and the systemic inequities that determine who struggles and who thrives. We are aware, too, of the fact that a threat to health anywhere is a threat to health everywhere

As the world is witnessing, the climate crisis is now everywhere. But if we respond with the urgency this moment demands, we can mobilize. We can collaborate. We can demand — and enact — bold changes. And in so doing, we can protect the health and save the lives of millions of our fellow human beings.

Michelle A. Williams is dean of faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and professor of public health and international development at the Harvard Chan School and Harvard Kennedy School.