The Lancet’s landmark Health Commission: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”

Lead author Anthony Costello says that failure to act will result in an intergenerational injustice, with our children and grandchildren scorning our generation for ignoring the climate change threat — with moral outrage similar to how we today look back on those who brought in and did nothing to stop slavery.

The Lancet medical journal and the University College London (UCL) Institute for Global Health have just released the final report of their year-long commission (every link you could want is here, key factoids below).  It represents one of the most definitive statements to date on the current and future health impacts of global warming.

Yet, even though this is an alarming report on the public health threat from human-caused climate change, it largely sticks with a low-ball reading of impacts from the 2007 IPCC report.  It assumes “medium-risk scenarios predicting 2-3°C rises by 2090” while acknowledging “some leading climate scientists have raised the concern that the IPCC 2007 predictions are too conservative” and “recent observations confirm that, because of high rates of observed emissions, the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” — which would take us to 4-5°C warming by 2090 (see here).

The report makes clear that the “full impact” of climate change to human health “is not being grasped by the healthcare community or policymakers.”  [Duh!]  Indeed, the lead author, Anthony Costello, a pediatrician and director of UCL Institute for Global Health, said that “he had not realised the full ramifications of climate change on health until 18 months ago.”  Now he describes the threat as “clear and present danger” affecting “billions of people” not just polar bears and tropical forests.  The health impacts will be felt “all around the world — and not just in some distant future but in our lifetimes and those of our children.”

The report notes that “Climate change will have devastating consequences for human health from”:

  • changing patterns of infections and insect-borne diseases, and increased deaths due to heat waves
  • reduced water and food security, leading to malnutrition and diarrhoeal disease
  • an increase in the frequency and magnitude of extreme climate events (hurricanes, cyclones, storm surges) causing flooding and direct injury
  • increasing vulnerability for those living in urban slums and where shelter and human settlements are poor
  • large scale population migration and the likelihood of civil unrest .

Here are some key quotes and factoids from the report:

  • Even the most conservative estimates are profoundly disturbing and demand action. (p1697 col 1)
  • The 12 warmest years on record within the past 150 years have been during the past 13 years.  (p1698 col 1)
  • Currently, a third of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a shoreline and 13 of the world’s 20 largest cities are located on a coast. More than a billion people could be displaced in environmental mass migration. (p1699 col 1)
  • Estimates show that small increases in the risk for climate-sensitive conditions, such as diarrhoea and malnutrition, could result in very large increases in the total disease burden. (p1701 col 1
  • The carbon footprint of the poorest 1 billion people is around 3% of the world’s total footprint; yet, these communities are affected the most by climate change. (p1701 col 2)
  • Malaria, tick-borne encephalitis, and dengue fever will become increasingly widespread. (p1702 col 2)
  • Half of the world’s population could face severe food shortages by the end of the century because rising temperatures take their toll on farmers’ crops. (p1704 col 2)
  • As people migrate away from areas deteriorated by gradual warming or destroyed by extreme weather events, they not only place substantial demands on the ecosystems and social infrastructures into which they migrate, but also carry illnesses that emerge from shifts in infectious-disease vectors. (p1719 col2)
  • Extreme weather events are not always handled well by rich nations [i.e. Katrina]. (p1719 col 2)
  • Farmers use about three-quarters of the world’s water supply: to grow 1kg of wheat requires around 1000L of water, whereas 1kg of beef takes as much as 15 000L. American or European diets require around 5000L of water per person every day, whereas African or Asian vegetarian diets use about 2000L per person every day. The social and political challenge of shifting dietary practices is enormous, especially as populations start to eat more meat as they climb out of poverty. (1720 col 2)
  • Climate change will … have an effect on psychosocial health. Increased spending on appropriate counselling or sympathetic health promotion, and the initiation of such services in poor countries, could be as important as planning to reduce new disease vectors. (p1721 col 1)

And they have a call to health experts to become informed on this key issue and speak out:

  • Joint statements from national institutes of medicine, representative bodies such as royal colleges, journal editors, organisations such as the Climate and Health Council, and university leaders worldwide, drawing upon a growing evidence base, can create a solidarity and authority that politicians will find hard to resist. (p1728 col 2)
  • We call for a collation of global expertise on the health effects of climate change leading up to a major conference within the next 2 years, which will define the priorities for management, implementation, and monitoring. Representation from developing countries should be emphasised. (p1729 col 2)

Kudos to The Lancet and the UCL Institute for Global Health.

11 Responses to The Lancet’s landmark Health Commission: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”

  1. I’m thinking this report will get a lot of play, even in the US.

  2. ZS says:

    I hope you’re right, but sadly, I’m assuming that it won’t (in the US).

  3. paulm says:

    Now we need the teaching and religious fraternities to step up to the plate and start not only accepting publicly but doing something about climate change.

    Like updating the curriculum in schools and universities.

  4. Jay Alt says:

    Half of the world’s population could face severe food shortages by the end of the century because rising temperatures take their toll on farmers’ crops.

    This won’t take a century to become a serious problem. Recall the now obsolete predictions on how long scientists thought it would take before the Arctic ice cap to got into deep trouble.

  5. Modesty says:

    Of interest in this context:

    “Parallels in reactionary argumentation in the U.S. congressional debates on the abolition of slavery and the Kyoto Protocol” Davidson, M., Climatic Change, 2007.

    Available at:

    “Today, the United States is as dependent on fossil fuels for its patterns of
    consumption and production as its South was on slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. That US congressmen tend to rationalise fossil fuel use despite climate risks to future generations just as Southern congressmen rationalised slavery despite ideals of equality is perhaps
    unsurprising, then. This article explores similarities between the rationalisation of slavery in the abolition debates and the rationalisation of ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases in the US congressional debates on the Kyoto Protocol.”

    One of the many examples in the article:
    “Or take Representative (and future governor) Henry A. Wise from Virginia on the house floor on January 26, 1842 (CG, p. 173):
    “…wherever black slavery existed, there was found at least an equality among the white population; but where it had no place, such equality was never to be found.”…“The principle of slavery was a leveling principle; it was friendly to equality [among whites]. Break down slavery, and you would with the same blow break down the great Democratic principle of equality among [white] men.””

    “Similarly, according to Senator Inhofe (July 28, 2003), the Kyoto Protocol would be at the expense of poor minorities in the US:
    “[The Kyoto Protocol] affects the poverty rates for Blacks and Hispanics. … it is discriminatory against these particular individuals. … Kyoto will cost 511,000 jobs held by Hispanic workers and 864,000 jobs held by Black workers. Poverty rates for minority families will increase dramatically, and because Kyoto will bring about higher energy prices, many minority businesses will be lost. … Kyoto and Kyoto-like
    policies developed in this body would cause the greatest harm to the very poorest of Americans” (S10015).”

    Short commentary on Davidson’s article:

  6. Rick Covert says:

    It would be ironic and indicative of how our mass media functions if this Lancet study predicting such dire consequences for food security for half the world’s population, deaths from diseases like encephylitus and heat waves, to name a few, didn’t get the coverage that Swine Flue has been getting which has not yet reached pandemic levels.

    Of course it is not beyond reason it will be ignored by the same mass media that ignored or talked down the last study that received notoriety from the Lancet on deaths caused by the war in Iraq.

  7. James Newberry says:

    This report is an exceptional contribution from the healthcare community that summarizes the extreme harms our Western paradigm of economic growth will inflict upon humanity and our nation. Some of the greatest practitioners in society, doctors and nurses, will not be able to respond to these tragedies.

    It is time for a Second American Revolution against corruption of governance, economic fraud and ecologic genocide. I suggest we might begin by a movement for passage of American Law that states, to the effect “No person shall lobby Congress who is paid to do so.” We need to leave plutocracy in the past and move forward by reinstituting democracy and promoting global justice.

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  11. Peter Staats says:

    I am sorry, but it is well established that increasing temperatures increase precipitation and increasing carbon dioxide levels increase crop yields. So much for food shortages caused by increasing temperatures and carbon dioxide emissions.