Your health & Climate change – Connecting the dots

    • By,
      Sruthi Murthala – Student, Kautilya

“We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.” – Barack Obama, Former US President.

This year marks the golden jubilee of the UN Conference of the Human Environment also called the first Earth Summit (1972), where participating nations had committed to preserve and protect the human environment with a set of common principles and frameworks. It is marked as the first global effort to make the environment a pressing global issue, where the foundation for an international policy was laid, and the core principles for its management were defined. However, 50 years down the lane, the world is facing the triple planetary issues of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss which is turning the planet unhealthy and affecting human health.

In a country like Britain, increasing air temperatures are turning the urban areas into heat islands which is affecting the human body and causing heat strokes. Indiscriminate and uncontrolled use of fossil fuels increases the particulate matter in the air, making it toxic. This leads to premature deaths, lung cancer, asthma, and pneumonia. An increase in various diseases, especially zoonotic ones like coronavirus, monkeypox, and malaria, spreads to higher latitudes. Air pollution is the single largest cause of environmental deaths accounting for 7 million globally. Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, droughts, locust attacks, and other extreme precipitation events cause traumatic injuries and significant effects on the health of both humans and wildlife. Due to climate change, enhanced drying of organic matter in forests is increasing the number of forest wildfires, particularly in the western United States and Australia. These wildfires, in turn, increases the fine particulate concentrations, decreases the carbon capture by the plants, and pushes out many people from their livelihoods.

Heavy downpours cause sewage overflow, contaminate agricultural wastes, and increases harmful algal blooms leading to water-borne diseases. Thus heavy rains contaminate water bodies and make it a precious commodity like gold. The visible results of climate change are rising sea levels, which in the near future will heavily impact the countries with a large shoreline and low lying coastal areas, not to speak of the small island nations, whose survival is a matter of concern. Receding glaciers will ensure more and more people migrate inwards as the sea levels rise, thus impacting the economy of developing countries like India, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

The early withdrawal of monsoon, and the increased frequency of cyclones, especially on India’s west coast, is having a tremendous impact on Indian agriculture, on which a majority of the population depend, leaving them with little or no income. Even Europe is facing severe droughts, heat waves are threatening its crops, affecting wine production in Italy, and corn production in France, contributing to the 9.6% inflationary rate in the European Union.

While the World Health Organization estimates that between 2030-2050 climate change is expected to cause approximately 2.5 lakh additional deaths per year, we can connect the dots between climate change and health by looking at trends in non-communicable diseases. The Climate crisis would further widen the health inequalities jeopardising the aim of universal health coverage and thereby compounding the burden on the common man. The Global Climate Risk Index 2021 ranked India among the top ten countries affected by the devastating impact of climate change. According to a World Bank estimate, “Climate change could drag more than 100 million people back into extreme poverty by 2030”, and much of this reversal would be due to the negative impacts on health. In 2010, WHO and UNDP launched the first global project on public health adaptation to climate change. Resilient health care systems are the need of the hour, and there is a need for detailed health adaptation plans in India as well.

India has drafted a National Action Plan on Climate Change and Human Health, and there is a need to strengthen and strategise the policy and integrate it with the state laws. As a part of the COP26 initiative, UK launched a new health and climate change platform in partnership with WHO to support countries at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) to achieve a resilient, low carbon, and sustainable health system, unfortunately, to which India is not a member. Environmental diplomacy to tackle climate change shouldn’t have any boundaries. There is a need for exchange of knowledge, best practices, building networks, access to technical & financial support systems, and helping the government to link the existing initiatives.