Climate Change on Health: unforseen repercussions

“If you look back to the society, the big changes on water pollution or sanitation, they all came because of the health argument […] the health sector will play an incredible role on changing the society” has explained Dr Neira to the British Medical Journal (BMJ). The Director of the Department of Public Health and Environment at the World Health Organisation (WHO) pointed out the significance of the Health sector in an attempt of opening people’s awareness about environmental issues. Dr Arvind Kumar, chest surgeon at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital of New Delhi and founder trustee of the Lung Care Foundation added support to Dr Neira’s statement by saying that “regarding health sector as being the driver of change […] nothing is more precious to anyone than health. If you go tell someone that his health is in danger and more importantly, his children’s health is in danger, he is going to answer instantly”.

However, back in the 1990s, there was little awareness of a possible connection between Climate Change and Health. More specifically, there was a clear lack of understanding of how the turmoil of ecological systems might alter the longer-term wellbeing and health of a population.

It is only in 1996 with the IPCC1 Second Assessment Report and its highlight of the potential risks Climate Change could have on health that the situation started to change.

The Third Assessment Report of 2001 did the same, but this time included evidence of the direct impact of Climate Change on Health.

The rise of global temperatures and the extreme weather events are having a considerable impact not only on the environment but on our health too. According to a report from The Lancelet on “Humanitarian crises in a Global Pandemic”, 7.9 million people have been displaced in 2019 due to the intensification of natural disasters by Climate Change. They have been removed from their homes due to famine or droughts and the access to health care in these settings is often poor (80% of the refugees living in low-income and middle-income countries with weak health systems).

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted climate actions in many different ways and brought in perspective the difference of response between the two crises. However, 2020 has shown that the two crises are both intrinsically tangled and bring up two questions: what is the impact of Coronavirus on Climate Change and Health and what kind of future is considered in a post-COVID-19 world?

1Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the United Nations body which assesses the science related to Climate Change

 

How does climate change affect health?

Extreme Heath

Extreme air temperatures contribute to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, especially among elderly people. The high temperatures also raise levels of ozone and other pollutants in the air, as well as pollen and allergens which can trigger asthma.

Air Pollution

Human activities such as industrial facilities, waste sites or fuel combustion from motor vehicles are a major source of air pollution. Air pollution has been linked to heart disease, stroke and lung cancer causing 7 million premature deaths every year. The WHO considers that 9 out 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants (e.g. ozone, nitrogen dioxide or carbon monoxide).

Natural disasters and variable rainfall patterns

Natural disasters have more than triple globally since the 1960s. Mainly touching the developing countries, it causes over 60,000 deaths. Rising sea levels and extreme weather will force people to move away from their homes and could cause a range of diseases from mental disorders to communicable diseases. The increase of rainfalls may affect the supply in fresh water which can compromise hygiene and expand the risk of diarrhoeal disease. In extreme cases, water shortage can lead to drought and famine.

Patterns of infection

Climatic conditions affect water-borne diseases and diseases transmitted through insects or cold-blooded animals. Malaria – which kills over 400 000 people every year – or dengue are strongly influenced by climate.

The COVID-19 crisis

Born from the live animal market in Wuhan, China, the coronavirus has blasted into a worldwide pandemic. China quarantined millions of people; Italy grounded flights and imposed mandatory lockdowns and the US banned all travel from European countries. Drastic health and social measures seemed to have followed in the footsteps of COVID-19.

Before

The actions taken by the worldwide governments in response to the Coronavirus have caused a significant drop of carbon emissions in countries and major urban areas. This drop of emissions was primarily due to travel restrictions. In New York, results showed that carbon monoxide from cars has been reduced by nearly 50% compared with last year. In addition to the decrease in transportation, industries – responsible of a fifth of global greenhouse emissions – have slowed down too. What followed could be felt by everyone: better air quality with a daily global CO2 emissions decrease of  -17% by April 2020. In big cities like London, the nitrogen dioxide levels emissions have faded away and days during lockdown with ‘good air quality’ was up 11.4% in 337 cities across China compared with 2019 according to its Ministry of Ecology and Environment.

The improvement of air quality did not only benefit humans but encouraged wild animals and insects to come out and explore the city. Wild bees, for example, who are responsible for one third of the world’s food pollination have been threatened by pollution over the recent years. Pollution interacts with scent molecules released by plants. As a consequence, bees are slower and less effective to locate food and therefore, to pollinate. Fewer fumes and pollution particles during lockdown gave the insects respite with floral scents easier to detect.

 

Now

At present, there has been a drop of carbon emissions due to the drastic measures imposed around the world. However, the study published on Nature called “Current and Future Global Climate Impacts Resulting from Covid-19”, has found that the impact on the climate crisis are negligible with a global heating cut of only 0.01°C by 2030. Despite the positive effects the virus has had on our lives, the pandemic is considered double-edged: on the one side, the beneficial drop-in carbon emissions and on the other, the negative repercussions on the climate once everything would be back to normal.

Increase of inequalities and medical waste

The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the inequalities faced by individuals and families in humanitarian crises. There are risks of starvation in camps due to a lack of access to aid. This interruption of aid means less access to soap and water which are essential to fight the virus. Physical distancing is sometimes not possible in some humanitarian settings like in Bangladesh where the density of population of 40,000 people per 40m2.

Lockdown could have increased vulnerability of the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions. The Mental Health Foundation has found a divergence in people’s experience of the pandemic depending on their social or economic environment. People affected by socioeconomic inequalities have been more likely to struggle with anxiety, panic or loneliness. Young people, isolated elderly people, single parents or unemployed people are more likely to be put at risk of mental health issues or of not benefitting from recovery equally.

Moreover, the virus has caused more medical waste. The health and care system (NHS) in England are responsible for 4-5% of the country’s carbon footprint which increased during the pandemic. However, the NHS has engaged the medical core in tackling Climate Change during 2020 with three main goals: establish an expert panel to help the NHS to get to “net zero”; calling hospitals to reduce carbon from buildings and estates or the launch of the campaign “For a Greener NHS” to encourage staff and hospital to cut their impact on people’s health and the environment.

Economic stimulus and global emissions

The crisis could cause increased emissions in the years to come. Some countries are already pumping out more carbon emissions in order to rally their economies. For example, the Chinese government started the largest and most polluting stimulus economic programme in history in order to offset the damages caused by the crisis. The financial programme involves massive public infrastructure investment or rural development. The heavy industry and carbon-intensive projects are causing a spike in China air pollution levels and carbon emissions.

In the United States, the Trump administration uses COVID-19 both as an excuse and distraction to deregulate essential regulations aimed to protect the environment. According to the New York Times, the Trump administration rolled back 100 federal environmental regulations. Out of these 100 rollbacks, 68 have been successfully completed and 32 are in the process of getting eliminated. Among them, the Clean Power Plan which would have lowered emissions in the United Sector power sector by 32% by 2030 or banning the use of Chlorpyrifos on farms which has been connected to brain damage for farmworkers. These large cuts of environmental regulations are a big consequence not only for climate action but for air quality and community health.

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Cancellation of climate actions

In addition to that, due to the pandemic and the social distancing, big climate conferences are being cancelled and the United Nations’ COP26 scheduled for this year has been postponed to 2021. Climate strikes are also cancelled and the climate activist Greta Thunberg has encouraged other solutions like digital activism to take over physical protests (have a look on our previous article on the subject)

Then?

The future is quite uncertain and raises the worry that the positive effects we have talked about earlier might be only short-term. It is indeed suspected that emissions will increase when the crisis ends like in China, and that climate policy will be set aside as governments focus first on boosting stalled economy. Nevertheless, there is some optimism regarding a world post-coronavirus. The COVID-19 crisis could be a big opportunity to reduce emissions in the longer term. It has increased concerns about Climate Change and other environmental problems

 

Behavioural change and stick of habits

For a lot of people, there is no reason to go back to commuting to work in an office when they are able to work from home. It also opened consciousness about how and where we get our food and about the willingness to waste less as lockdowns emptied some supermarkets shelves. The virus has also had an impact on us as a community. We are willing to help and willing to make big changes in order to protect public health. The speed and extent of the response has given hope that rapid actions could be taken on Climate Change if the threat it poses is treated urgently.

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Policymaking

According to Ilias Grampas, the European Union (EU) Affairs Manager at the European Bureau for Conservation and Development to Science Business, the key factors that will influence climate policymaking in the future will be how long the pandemic lasts, whether member states adjust their budget allocations, if political leaders choose to support green investments, and whether financial motivation to re-energise EU economies incorporate sustainable growth principles.

 “Green recovery” called by the United Kingdom’s prime minister, leading economists and International Energy Agency (IEA) to “builds back better” aims to cut CO2 emissions and boost the economy. There is a grid that includes governments stimulus packages supporting measures aimed at reducing carbon emissions. The UK government’s plan for post-COVID recovery was set out with a budget up to £30billion, with £3billion earmarked for climate action. Yet the full text of the plan contains relatively few mentions of “climate” or “environment”

COVID-19 versus Climate Change response

One question remains: what can we learn from our response to COVID-19 and how can we apply it to Climate Change? As of the time of this article, 813 944 deaths have been reported worldwide. In contrast, an issue such as air pollution which causes 4.5-7 million premature deaths every year rarely makes headlines. The different responses to the two crises can be explained as Climate Change is a slow and a gradual threat, whereas COVID-19 is immediate and has clear consequences. There is a lot to learn to how we responded to COVID-19. To prevent millions of future deaths caused directly through burning fossil fuels or indirectly through the consequences of a hotter planet, the world needs to act quickly for rapid and drastic change. The IPCC report asserts that we have until 2030 to make global emission cuts. The COVID-19 showed that collective, large-scale, structural change is feasible in a face of a crisis and climate change is the biggest crisis of our generation. The response to the virus demonstrates that decoupling economic growth are not only possible but necessary in order to drastically cut emissions.

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