Climate change already damaging health of millions globally – new report

  • Date

    Tue 31 Oct 17

We have been involved in major new research which shows that climate change is already a significant public health issue and a looming global health emergency.


The findings, outlined in The Lancet medical journal, demonstrate the various ways climate change is already affecting the health of people across the planet, today. 

Leading doctors, academics and policy professionals from 26 partner organisations have contributed analysis and jointly authored the report. As members of The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change, the partners behind the research also include the World Bank, World Health Organisation (WHO), University College London and Tsinghua University. 

Among the existing health impacts included in the report are: 

  • An average 5.3% fall in productivity for rural labour estimated globally since 2000, as a result of rising temperatures. In 2016 this effectively took more than 920,000 people globally out of the workforce, with 418,000 of them in India alone. 
  • Between 2000 and 2016, the number of people exposed to heatwave events has increased by approximately 125 million, with a record 175 million people exposed to heatwaves in 2015. This supports the Lancet’s existing research showing just under 1 billion additional heatwaves exposure events happening by 2050.
  • Over one billion people globally will be faced with a need to migrate within ninety years, due to a rise in sea level caused by ice shelf collapse, unless necessary action is taken.
  • Under-nutrition is identified as the largest health impact of climate change in the 21st century. Related impacts of climate change on crop production referenced in the report include a 6% decline in global wheat yields and 10% fall in rice yields for each additional 1 °C rise in global temperature.
  • Over 803,000 premature and avoidable deaths in 2015 as a result of air pollution across 21 Asian countries, attributable to just one type of air pollution from coal power, transport and use of fossil fuels in the home.

"Climate change is already affecting the health and wellbeing of millions globally. There has been a noticeable increase in efforts to tackle this challenge, but more can be done, particularly, around accelerating the policy response for health implications of climate change."
Slava Mikhaylov Professor of Public policy and data science

The authors are clear the necessary response to climate change still provides an opportunity to realise substantial gains in public health. The potential benefits and opportunities are staggering, including cleaning-up the air of polluted cities, delivering more nutritious diets, ensuring energy, food and water security, and alleviating poverty, alongside social and economic inequalities. 

Slava Mikhaylov, Professor of Public Policy and Data Science at Essex, who took part in the research said: “Climate change is already affecting the health and wellbeing of millions globally. There has been a noticeable increase in efforts to tackle this challenge, but more can be done, particularly, around accelerating the policy response for health implications of climate change.”

Natural language processing expert Professor Mikhaylov was involved in the public and political engagement part of the research where they focused on the United Nations.

“We collected speeches by heads of state and government or their representatives in the UN General Assembly and by applying natural language processing we assessed the level of engagement with the intersection of climate change and public health in their statements,” he explained. “We found different levels of engagement across countries depending on their exposure to climate change (eg Western Pacific nations) and levels of political contention over the issue (eg North America).

“We also identified that the levels of engagement increased in the run-up to major climate change summits but sharply decreased immediately thereafter, highlighting the short attention span that is still prevalent among high-level policymakers.”

Professor Anthony Costello, Co-Chair of the Lancet Countdown and a Director at the World Health Organisation, explained: “Climate change is happening and it’s a health issue today for millions worldwide. The outlook is challenging, but we still have an opportunity to turn a looming medical emergency into the most significant advance for public health this century.

“As we move in the right direction, we hope for a step-change from governments to tackle the cause and impacts of climate change. We need urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The health and economic benefits on offer are huge. The cost of inaction will be counted in preventable loss of life, on a large scale.”
The initiative builds on the work of the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, which concluded that human-made climate change threatens to undermine the last 50 years of gains in public health.

Today’s research shows this is becoming increasingly clear and the challenges are greater than anticipated. The findings also show that climate change is affecting the health of all populations, today. These impacts are disproportionately felt by communities least responsible for climate change and those who are the most vulnerable in society.