The Lancet: Fossil Fuels Are Killing Us... Quitting Them Can Save Us
Originally published in
Common Dreams, 23 June 2015 under a Creative Commons License
Comparing coal, oil, and gas addiction to the last generation's effort to kick the tobacco habit, doctors say that quitting would be the best thing humanity can do for its long-term health.
Quitting fossil fuels is described in the new report as a "medical necessity." (Image: UNICEF)
The bad news is very bad, indeed. But first, the good news: "Responding to climate change could be the biggest global health opportunity of this century."
That message is the silver lining contained in a comprehensive newly published report by The Lancet, the UK-based medical journal, which explores the complex intersection between global human health and climate change.
"It took on entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry and led the fight against HIV/AIDS. Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to human and environmental health." — Prof. Peng Gong, Tsinghua University
The wide-ranging and peer-reviewed report—titled Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health—declares that the negative impacts of human-caused global warming have put at risk some of the world's most impressive health gains over the last half century. What's more, it says, continued use of fossil fuels is leading humanity to a future in which infectious disease patterns, air pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, involuntary migration, displacement, and violent conflict will all be made made worse.
"Climate change," said commission co-chairman Dr. Anthony Costello, a pediatrician and director of the Global Health Institute at the University College of London, "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. Our analysis clearly shows that by tackling climate change we can also benefit health. Tackling climate change represents one of the greatest opportunities to benefit human health for generations to come."
Put together by the newly formed Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change—described as a major new collaboration between international climate scientists and geographers, social and environmental scientists, biodiversity experts, engineers and energy policy experts, economists, political scientists and public policy experts, and health professionals—the report is the most up-to-date and comprehensive of its kind. Though many studies have been performed on the subject, the commission argues the "catastrophic risk to human health posed by climate change" has been grossly "underestimated" by others.
The four key findings of the report include:
1. The effects of climate change threaten to undermine the last half-century of gains in development and global health. The impacts are being felt today, and future projections represent an unacceptably high and potentially catastrophic risk to human health.
2. Tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.
3. Achieving a decarbonized global economy and securing the public health benefits it offers is no longer primarily a technological or economic question – it is now a political one.
4. Climate change is fundamentally an issue of human health, and health professionals have a vital role to play in accelerating progress on mitigation and adaptation policies.
"When health professionals shout 'emergency' politicians everywhere should listen." —Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth"Climate Change is a medical emergency," said Dr. Hugh Montgomery, commission co-chair and director of the UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance. "It thus demands an emergency response."
With rising global temperatures fueling increasing extreme weather events, crop failures, water scarcity, and other crises, Montgomery says the report is an attempt to make it clear that drastic and immediate actions should be taken. "Under such circumstances," he said, "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."
In a companion paper published alongside the larger report, commission members Helena Wang and Richard Horton explained why human health impacts are an important part of the larger argument regarding climate change:
When climate change is framed as a health issue, rather than purely as an environmental, economic, or technological challenge, it becomes clear that we are facing a predicament that strikes at the heart of humanity. Health puts a human face on what can sometimes seem to be a distant threat. By making the case for climate change as a health issue, we hope that the civilizational crisis we face will achieve greater public resonance. Public concerns about the health effects of climate change, such as undernutrition and food insecurity, have the potential to accelerate political action in ways that attention to carbon dioxide emissions alone do not.
Responding to the findings and warnings contained in the report, Mike Childs, the head of policy for the Friends of the Earth-UK, said the message from one of the world's foremost institutions on public health has given powerful new evidence to the argument that "radical action is urgently required" to avoid further climate catastrophe.
"When health professionals shout 'emergency', politicians everywhere should listen." —Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth
Going from diagnosis to prescribing a remedy, the doctors and scientists involved with the report—who equated the human health emergency of climate change with previous physician-led fights against tobacco use and HIV/AIDS—argue the crisis of anthropogenic climate change demands—as a matter of "medical necessity"—the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels (with special emphasis on coal) from the global energy mix. In addition, the authors say their data on global human health support a recommendation for an international carbon price.
"The health community has responded to many grave threats to health in the past," said another commission co-chair, Professor Peng Gong of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. "It took on entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry and led the fight against HIV/AIDS. Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to human and environmental health."
The Commission argues that human health would vastly improve in a less-polluted world free from fossil fuels. "Virtually everything that you want to do to tackle climate change has health benefits," said Dr. Costello. "We're going to cut heart attacks, strokes, diabetes."
The following video, produced by the Commission and released alongside the report, also explains:
As Wang and Horton conclude in their remarks, "Climate change is the defining challenge of our generation. Health professionals must mobilize now to address this challenge and protect the health and well-being of future generations."
For the past three years, I have been leading an important project for the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), which led to the release on May 25th of our Discussion Paper and a 100-page technical report on global change and public health.
In these documents, we identify what we call the “ecological determinants of health”: clean air and water, food, materials, fuel, the great cycles of water, nitrogen and phosphorus, detoxification of wastes, climate stability, and others.
These determinants of health come from the Earth’s natural ecosystems, and they are threatened by the massive and still growing human-induced global ecological changes now underway. These changes thus represent the greatest threat to the health of the public in the 21st century. They include the following:
Global warming and resultant climate instability;
The contamination of all ecosystems and food chains—and all humans—with persistent organic pollutants and other novel entities such as nano-particles;
The depletion of key resources and damage to ecosystems that provide life-supporting “goods and services”; and
The loss of species and biodiversity, a human-induced “sixth great extinction” that threatens the overall web of life.
Here I explore some of the many issues and approaches we discuss in our report, beginning with the underlying values and beliefs that drive the ecological changes we are witness to, and the changes in those values and beliefs we need to create.
The drivers of the ecological changes noted above, now collectively being referred to as “The Anthropocene,” are a combination of population growth and affluence, with technology sometimes amplifying and sometimes reducing their impact. But underlying these drivers is an increasingly globally shared set of values and beliefs that together comprise “modernism.” The central value is a belief in “progress,” and that progress equates with growth, especially growth in material wellbeing.
This leads to the pursuit of economic growth to meet the growing demands of a growing population. But this is the fundamental problem because, in our current economic system, growth means more demands on the Earth’s natural resources and more damage to its ecosystems.
Such damage is resulting in the decline, and may result in the collapse, of key ecosystem functions that are the basis for the life and survival of humans and other life forms; when ecosystems decline or collapse, so too do the societies that are dependent upon them. This damage in turn undermines the economy and threatens the continued wellbeing and even the very survival of communities, societies, and our increasingly interconnected global civilisation.
Moreover, as resources become scarce and ecosystems fragile, those with wealth and power will ensure their access to them, even if it means others—including other humans and other species—have less. This will both heighten global and local inequity and push more ecosystems toward collapse and more species toward extinction. It will also heighten the potential for both local and global strife.
Faced with these immense challenges of potential ecological and social decline and collapse, the only answer from conventional economics is more growth. But continued conventional growth in a finite system—the Earth—is clearly impossible when it involves more growth in demand for resources and more strain upon our increasingly fragile life-supporting ecosystems. There are indeed limits to growth—or to be more precise, there is a limit to growth, and that limit is the Earth itself.
Our current economic system is broken and must be discarded and replaced with an economic system that is compatible with the Earth and all its ecosystems and resources. This will require a massive global change in the underlying cultural and political values that drive our current economic system.
That change has to begin with the wealthy countries because we cannot say, in effect, that we will keep what we have but the rest of the world cannot have what we have because there isn’t enough to go around. We in the wealthy countries need to shift our focus from the pursuit of economic development to the pursuit of a higher goal: human development that is equitable and sustainable.
After all, what business are we in—or should we be in—as societies and governments? Are we here to grow the economy? Is that really the ultimate human purpose? Or are we here to “grow” people? And are we here only to “grow” some people—people like us, perhaps?—or are we here to pursue a more noble purpose: ensuring the achievement by everyone of the highest human potential of which they are capable, in a manner that is ecologically sustainable and socially just?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a public health physician and a professor at the School of Public Health and Social Policy at the University of Victoria. He has played a key role in founding several environment-focused organizations, including the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care. In the 1980’s, Dr. Hancock was one of the founders and the first leader of the Green Party in Canada.