Low carbon growth is catalyst for universal human health: Dr. Cecil Wilson, World Medical Association

Reading time: 10 minutes
5 February 2016

The World Health Organization classification of the Zika virus outbreak as a global public health emergency is a harsh reminder that tropical and water-born diseases thrive in warmer temperatures and heavy rain; all effects worsened by a changing climate. In an exclusive interview with The Climate Group, Cecil B. Wilson, MD, MACP President, World Medical Association, explains how low carbon, climate resilient growth is a clear catalyst for protecting human health around the world.

“Human health is profoundly threatened by our global failure to halt emissions growth and curb climate change,“ affirms Dr. Cecil Wilson, former President of the World Medical Association, in an exclusive interview with The Climate Group.

Dr. Wilson's powerful comment reflects the world's slowly shifting climate change discourse. Societal and media recognition of the harm to global human health brought on by the burning of fossil fuels – such as respiratory issues related to pollution in cities  is growing, partly driven by increasingly worrying data.  

"The WHO estimated in 2012 that urban outdoor pollution was responsible for 3.7 million annual deaths, representing 6.7% of total deaths," Dr Wilson notes. "With climate change comes the heat. In Australia [for example], the number of dangerously hot days where outdoor play and work is considered hazardous has been suggested to rise dramatically, so that the four to six days we have now will go to 33 to 45 days a year by the year 2070.”

But while these figures are stark, there is a complexity to linking climate change with human health that goes even further than physical injury and illness caused by erratic weather patterns such as floods, heatwaves and typhoons. It also reaches far into unexpected longer-term effects including mental health, anxiety, depression and suicide – as well as food and disease crises.

Impact on global poor

Dr. Wilson warns that indirect impacts will have the greatest effect on global health. “In those changing patterns of infectious diseases, such as dengue and malaria, these diseases are moving with the warmth. Increases in water-scarcity and water-born diseases highlight impacts like malnutrition, problems in production of agriculture. Collapses in some parts of the world will increase food insecurity, especially among the poor. Crop failure related to climate change will have a profound negative impact.”

Those people at the margins of where diseases spread most abundantly will be particularly affected, which is often a factor affecting socio-economic wellbeing. The impacts of climate change will only aggravate these disruptions, particularly in water and food production. The WHO expects approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 caused by climate change induced air pollution, unsafe drinking water, food scarcity and lack of shelter.

“Recent studies report that there will be about 107 million undernourished people in this world by the end of this century, which in turn, cause a rise in nutritional stunting in most of the world, with Sub-Saharan Africa experiencing a 31% increase in severe stunting in children."

But Dr. Cecil Wilson firmly believes that addressing climate change through emissions mitigation will not only reduce air pollution, but alleviate many of the diverse risks to human health and poverty as well. He stresses that climate impacts on global food and water security should provide further incentive for urgent action. “Health and well-being has also provided an important impetus for attacking climate change and many of the mitigation strategies hold massive health and economic advantages.”

While shifting patterns in disease and agriculture loss linked with ensuing health and nutritional concerns should be enough cause for large-scale bold climate action, Dr. Wilson warns barriers still exist because the knock-on effects are so far-reaching and complex. "The challenge is that a lot of things related to climate change, such as over-consumption of fossil fuels, poor design of cities and sedentary lifestyles also contribute to our biggest health problems; problems such as obesity, chronic lung disease, and heart disease. A recent report suggests that the total number of deaths due to exposure to air pollution reached 7 million in 2012 and 1 in 8 of all deaths globally."

A healthy workforce, a healthy economy

National energy and infrastructure policy that does not account for the damages caused by rising emissions and subsequent health risks to its citizens, also runs the risk of bruising the economy. A strong and growing workforce presents an opportunity to drive economic expansion and increase gross domestic product (GDP).

But accounting for the health risks related to infrastructure and energy development – and the subsequent economic damages that come with it – is a concern often overlooked, Dr. Wilson points out. “In the European Union alone, coal fired power plants are responsible for 18, 200 pre-mature deaths and 4 million non-working days, with the total health cost of coal combustion estimated at 42 billion EUR a year.”

Climate change mitigation and moving to improve health begins with "reducing air pollution by switching cleaner, low carbon energy sources, designing our towns and cities around walking and cycling rather than cars, and moving towards a diet of less red meats and dairy consumption”.

Beyond these seemingly simple steps, Dr. Wilson says the global health sector also has a collective duty to act. As well as explaining that health professionals must call on local and national policymakers to curb short-lived pollutants like black carbon, he goes into more detail by outlining the following actions – most of which form the basis of what the health community deem necessary for significant change:

  1. Eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, avoiding new coal projects and phasing out coal power generation.
  2. Prioritize and finance development based on clean, renewable energy sources that protect public health.
  3. Reach an international agreement that leads us in a transition to clean, renewable energy by, in part, transferring technical and financial resources to countries least able to make this transition.
  4. Invite greater health sector participation to energy and climate decision making in all tiers of government.
  5. Require health impact assessments conducted by qualified experts as a part of statutory requirement for the permitting and citing of new energy projects.
  6. Include considerations of health impacts, as well as health costs and benefits in policy legal and financial decision-making on energy project.

Global response to a global risk

Wrapping up the interview, Dr. Wilson notes there must be adequate recognition and explanation of the health risks that climate change poses in our international response – and urges the US and China, the two largest polluters in the world, to lead the way.

Warning of the sense of emergency needed around effectively addressing climate change and its subsequent health challenges, Dr. Wilson concludes: "Human health is profoundly threatened by our global failure to halt emissions growth and curb climate change. As representatives of health communities around the world, we argue that strategies to achieve rapid and sustained emissions reductions, and protect health, must be implemented in a timeframe that prevents further loss and damage.

"We recognize that this will require considerable courage and leadership from our political, business and civil society leaders, including the health sector. Acceptance from the global community about the threats to health posed by our current path is what is needed, as well as a willingness to recognize the many benefits to creating low carbon, healthy, sustainable and resilient societies.”

  • Watch interviews with other experts and leaders on Climate TV

Interview by Andrew Pickens

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