Climate change poses biggest health threat: WHO



MASERU – Climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity, and health professionals worldwide are already responding to the health effects caused by this unfolding crisis, according the World Health Organisation (WHO).

A report by WHO shows that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that to avert catastrophic health impacts and prevent millions of climate change-related deaths, the world must limit temperature rise to 1.5°C.

WHO notes that past emissions have already induced a certain level of global temperature rise and rendered other changes to the climate inevitable. “Global heating of even 1.5°C is not considered safe, however, every additional tenth of a degree of warming will take a serious toll on people’s lives and health,” the report adds.

While no one is safe from these risks, the people whose health is being harmed first and worst by the climate crisis are said to be those who contribute least to its causes and who are least able to protect themselves and their families against it. These are people in low-income and disadvantaged countries and communities.

The climate crisis threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction, and to further widen existing health inequalities between and within populations. “It severely jeopardizes the realisation of universal health coverage (UHC) in various ways, including by compounding the existing burden of disease and by exacerbating existing barriers to accessing health services, often at the times when they are most needed.

“Over 930 million people, around 12 percent of the world’s population, spend at least 10 percent of their household budget to pay for health care. With the poorest people largely uninsured, health shocks and stresses already currently push around 100 million people into poverty every year, with the impacts of climate change worsening this trend,” the report notes.

Climate change is already impacting health in a myriad of ways, including by leading to death and illness from increasingly frequent extreme weather events such as heatwaves, storms and floods, disruption of food systems, increases in zoonosis and food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, as well as mental health issues.

Furthermore, climate change is undermining many of the social determinants for good health such as livelihoods, equality and access to health care and social support structures. These climate-sensitive health risks are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, including women, children, ethnic minorities, poor communities, migrants or displaced persons, older populations, and those with underlying health conditions.

Although it is undeniable that climate change affects human health, it remains challenging to accurately estimate the scale and impact of many climate-sensitive health risks. However, scientific advances progressively allow to attribute an increase in morbidity and mortality to human-induced warming and more accurately determine the risks and scale of these health threats.

In the short- to medium-term, the health impacts of climate change will be determined mainly by the vulnerability of populations, their resilience to the current rate of climate change and the extent and pace of adaptation.

In the longer-term, the effects will increasingly depend on the extent to which transformational action is taken now to reduce emissions and avoid the breaching of dangerous temperature thresholds and potential irreversible tipping points.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shone light on the intimate and delicate links between humans, animals and our environment,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “The same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people,” Dr Ghebreyesus said. WHO calls on all countries to commit to limit global warming to 1.5°C – not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is in humanity’s own interest.

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