Just What the Doctor Ordered: Climate Change, Public Health, and Clean Energy

Six years ago, the only people I talked to about global warming were other environmentalists. Now it is the top of the agenda for everyone from corporate CEOs to national security hawks. Last week, another sector joined in the growing chorus to confront the climate crisis: public health.

The Lancet, one of the world's most prestigious medical journals, just released a report along with the University College London that calls climate change "the biggest global health threat of the 21st century."

That makes it bigger than AIDS, bigger than malaria, and bigger than pandemic flu. And that's why the authors are calling for an international public health advocacy movement dedicated specifically to curbing global warming. The doctors' prescription is clear: low-carbon living will generate major health benefits.

The link between global warming and human health was brought home to me last summer when I traveled through the Arctic Ocean on an expedition to see the signs of global warming up close. As I expected, there were several climate scientists on the ship as well as US lawmakers and environmental leaders. But I was surprised to discover that the director of the Center for Disease Control was also onboard. Health officials at the highest levels are beginning to take global warming very seriously.

The Lancet report indicates why. Its findings include:

  • Extreme heat waves will cause more deaths; in 2003, Europe got a hint of this when up to 70,000 extra deaths were linked to intense heat waves across the continent.
  • Changes patterns of infections and insect-born disease will threaten could have devastating impacts on human health.
  • Reduced water and food availability will lead to malnutrition and diarrheal disease, which can be deadly in impoverished communities.
  • Within the next 20 years, declining crop yields--brought on by climate change--could increase food insecurity. And by 2100, half of the world's people could face severe food scarcity, as rising temperatures take their toll on farmers' crops.

The Lancet makes it clear that these impacts will land disproportionately hard on the poorest among us. This includes the victims of the Darfur genocide, the millions of people living in the flood plains of Bangladesh, and the inhabitants of Lagos, Mumbai, and other low-lying cities who are too poor to move away from rising seas.

These looming realities give a moral urgency to stopping global warming. The climate crisis was caused by humans, and I believe we can solve it as well. But at the same time we are fighting to put low-carbon solutions in place, we also have to pay close attention to ways human health is already being endangered.

NRDC's Global Warming & Health Project is fast at work on this. As my colleague, Dr. Kim Knowlton points on in her recent post, NRDC reports have already charted future changes in unhealthy ground-level smog, elevated heat-related deaths, and changing climate-ozone-pollen patterns. You can find overviews of this work at the NRDC's Global Warming and Health website.

And as you read NRDC's information and the Lancet findings, remember that we can stave off the worst of these health problems by reducing our global warming pollution.

The clean energy bill that is moving through the House right now is just what the doctor ordered.