Health Enemy No.1: Climate Change

| Fri May 15, 2009 6:57 PM EDT

The authors of a UK climate report issued this week say that climate change is "the biggest global health problem of the 21st century" and is likely killing people right now. The report was created jointly by doctors and climatologists from The Lancet and University College London. The report's authors assert that climate change is inextricably linked to global health, and needs to be treated as an emergency by policy-makers because it has the potential to wipe out "all the gains that we've seen in global health... improvements in child mortality, improvements in maternal mortality... over the past 20 or 30 years."

As Dr. David McCoy from University College London puts it, the current situation is dire. "Even today there are literally hundreds of thousands of people who are probably dying, most certainly living in an undernourished situation, as a result of climate change," says McCoy. "So it's really affecting the lives of people today."

Certainly that seems to be the case in Somalia where the fourth year of drought, the worst in a decade, is killing cattle and depleting food stores to the point that the nation is being pushed toward famine. There's no confirmation yet that this specific drought is climate-change related, but if global temperatures rise more than 2 degrees centigrade as they're expected to, it will be just the first drought of many. (For the record, Africans produce far less greenhouse gas emissions per capita than North Americans.) As the UK report forecasts, water and food shortages and extreme weather patterns have the potential to kill far more people, especially in developing nations, than the increased spread of infectious diseases. Dr. McCoy says, "It was urgent 30 years ago. And I don't think it'd be alarmist to say it's reached emergency levels in terms of the kind of response we need today."

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