Medical journals call climate change the 'greatest threat to global public health'

An emergency worker treats a person showing symptoms of heat injury in Portland, Oregon, on Aug 12, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - A collection of leading health and medical journals called this week for swift action to combat climate change, calling on governments to cooperate and invest in the environmental crisis with the degree of funding and urgency they used to confront the coronavirus pandemic.

In an editorial published in more than 200 medical and health journals worldwide, the authors declared a 1.5 deg C rise in global temperatures the "greatest threat to global public health". The world is on track to warm by around 3 deg C above preindustrial levels by 2100, based on current policies.

"The science is unequivocal; a global increase of 1.5 deg C above the pre-industrial average and the continued loss of biodiversity risk catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse," the authors wrote. "Indeed, no temperature rise is 'safe.'"

Although medical journals have co-published editorials in the past, this marked the first time that publication has been coordinated at this scale. In total more than 200 journals representing every continent and a wide range of medical and health disciplines from ophthalmology to veterinary medicine published the statement.

The authors are editors of leading journals including The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine.

In the editorial, they raised concerns not only about the direct health consequences of rising temperatures, including heat-related mortality, pregnancy complications and cardiovascular disease, but also the indirect costs, including the effects that soil depletion could have on malnutrition and the possibility that widespread destruction of habitats could increase the likelihood of future pandemics.

The editorial urged wealthy countries to go beyond their targets and commit to emissions reductions that are commensurate with their cumulative, historic emissions. It also called on them to go beyond their stated goals of US$100 billion (S$134.6 billion) for climate resiliency plans in developing nations, including funding for improving health systems.

"While low- and middle-income countries have historically contributed less to climate change, they bear an inordinate burden of the adverse effects, including on health," Dr Lukoye Atwoli, the editor-in-chief of the East African Medical Journal and one of the co-authors of the editorial, said in a statement. "We therefore call for equitable contributions whereby the world's wealthier countries do more to offset the impact of their actions on the climate."

Professor Sue Turale, the editor-in-chief of the International Nursing Review and a co-author of the editorial, said in a statement, "As our planet faces disasters from climate change and rising global temperature, health professionals everywhere have a moral responsibility to act to avoid this."

The publication comes ahead of a busy few months of climate and environmental conferences. The United Nations General Assembly is scheduled to meet this month in New York City; the UN's biodiversity summit will meet next month in Kunming, China; and the UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP, will meet in November in Glasgow, Scotland.

A growing body of research has shown that extreme weather events worsened by climate change are contributing to a wide range of adverse health outcomes.

Earlier this year, a study found that around a third of heat-related deaths worldwide could be attributed to the extra warming associated with climate change. And this summer, hundreds of Americans have died in extreme weather events, including more than 600 during the weeklong record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific North-west that climate scientists say would have been "virtually impossible without climate change".

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