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It Is Crucial To Deal With Climate Change To Avoid A Global Health Catastrophe

June 06, 2017

Failure to agree to radical cuts in carbon dioxide emissions at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen this December spells a global health catastrophe. This warning is communicated in an editorial and a letter published simultaneously by the BMJ and The Lancet today.

Lord Michael Jay and Professor Michael Marmot write in the editorial that "the scientific evidence that global temperatures are rising and that man is responsible has been widely accepted since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report in 2007." At present, there is a similar broad consensus that we need to act now to prevent irremediable climate change.

They say "the chances of success should be good but the politics are tough."

The most striking arguments are about equity: the rich world caused the problem so why should the poor world compensate to correct it? Can the rich world do as much as necessary through its own actions and through its financial and technological support for the poor to convince the poor to unite in a global agreement?

These arguments need to be dealt bluntly. Jay and Marmot trust that the climate is related to health. For instance, a low carbon economy will result in less pollution. A low carbon diet includes eating less meat. More exercise will mean less cancer, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. They say this is also a chance to advance health equity. This is increasingly considered as essential for a healthy and happy society.

They underline that health hazards are particularly apparent in poorest countries. Principally in sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty and lack of resources, infrastructure, and often governance, seriously amplify their exposure to the effects of climate change.

"If we take climate change seriously, it will require major changes to the way we live, reducing the gap between carbon rich and carbon poor within and between countries," they comment.

They write in closing: "A successful outcome at Copenhagen is vital for our future as a species and for our civilization. Failure to agree radical reductions in emissions spells a global health catastrophe, which is why health professionals must put their case forcefully now and after Copenhagen."

In the supplementary collective letter, doctor leaders worldwide appeal to politicians to concentrate on the health effects of climate change when they meet in Copenhagen.

They caution that "there is a real danger that politicians will be indecisive, especially in such turbulent economic times as these."

"Doctors are still seen as respected and independent, largely trusted by their patients and the societies in which they practice," they explain. For that reason, they urge doctors "to demand that their politicians listen to the clear facts that have been identified in relation to climate change and act now to implement strategies that will benefit health of communities worldwide."

"Politicians may be scared to push for radical reductions in emissions because some of the necessary changes to the way we live won't please voters," said Dr Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of the BMJ. "Doctors are under no such constraint. On the contrary we have a responsibility as health professionals to warn people how bad things are likely to get if we don't act now. The good news is that we have a positive message - that what is good for the climate is good for health."

"Health and climate change"
M Jay, M G Marmot
BMJ 2009; 339:b3669

"Politicians must heed health effects of climate change"
Victor Lim, Joseph W Stubbs, Nazmun Nahar, Naomali Amarasena, Zafar Ullah Chaudry, Steven Chow, Kim Weng, Bongani Mayosi, Zephne van der Spuy, Raymond Liang, Kar Neng Lai, Geoffrey Metz, G William N Fitzgerald, Brian Williams, Neil Douglas, John Donohoe, Somwang Darnchaivijir, Patrick Coker, Ian Gilmore
BMJ 2009; 339:b3672
bmj

Stephanie Brunner (B.A.)