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Major Health Study Shows Benefits of Combating Climate Change

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Hikers on the Mt. Hollywood Trail in Griffin Park, Calif. while a brush fire burned in the Angeles National Forest on Aug. 26, 2009. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

During the holiday season, people often drink toasts to health. There's something more we can do to ensure that we and others will enjoy good health now and into the future: combat climate change.


"Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century, and tackling it could be our greatest health opportunity," according to the medical journal The Lancet. The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change, by 150 experts from 27 academic institutions and intergovernmental organizations, including the World Health Organization and the World Bank, is blunt: "A rapidly changing climate has dire implications for every aspect of human life, exposing vulnerable populations to extremes of weather, altering patterns of infectious disease, and compromising food security, safe drinking water and clean air."

The report examines the association between health and climate change, including resilience and adaptation, financial and economic implications, the health and economic benefits of addressing the crisis, and the need for political and societal engagement, with a greater role for health professionals.

Sadly, the researchers conclude that a lack of concerted effort from governments is compromising human health and health infrastructure and services. They note some progress has been made, including a global decline in coal use, rapid growth in renewable energy installation and increasing fossil fuel divestment. But it's far short of what's needed to keep global average temperature from rising more than 2°C, let alone the more ambitious target of 1.5°C.

People in more than 90 percent of cities breathe air that is toxic to cardiovascular and respiratory health, and it appears to be getting worse, "particularly in low-income and middle-income countries." Pollutants from burning coal and other fossil fuels are causing millions of premature deaths every year.

A World Health Organization report, released at this year's COP24 climate summit in Katowice, Poland, echoes The Lancet findings, noting that at least seven million people a year die prematurely because of pollution, and millions more become ill. It concludes that health gains from meeting Paris agreement commitments would more than make up for the financial costs of global efforts to achieve those goals, "and would exceed that in countries such as China and India by several times."

The Lancet report shows the costs of inaction are rising: "About 712 climate-related extreme events were responsible for US$326 billion of losses in 2017, almost triple the losses of 2016," with 99 percent of losses in low-income countries uninsured. Deadly heatwaves, prolonged drought, increased flooding, agricultural losses, spreading transmission of infectious diseases from insects and contaminated water, mental health issues and water shortages are among the costly health impacts of climate change.

The Canadian Medical Association and Canadian Public Health Association offered several recommendations for policy-makers based on The Lancet report, emphasizing the role of doctors and other health professionals in addressing climate change and raising public awareness. "Ensuring a widespread understanding of climate change as a central public health issue will be vital in delivering an accelerated response, with the health profession beginning to rise to this challenge," they wrote.

Beyond informing the public, recommendations include preparing people for worsening impacts; integrating climate change and health into medical and health sciences faculties curricula; supporting an equitable transition for people who work in the fossil fuel industry; phasing out coal power by 2030 and replacing it with non-emitting sources; applying carbon-pricing instruments quickly and scaling them up; and funding research into the mental health impacts of climate change. The groups also caution against promoting natural gas as a solution because "increasing numbers of studies show risks to public health, water and air from hydraulic fracturing for natural gas."

When people get sick from contaminated lettuce or are injured because of defective products, governments and corporations promptly remove or recall the dangerous items. Granted, global warming is a much bigger challenge, but given the benefits of acting quickly and decisively to bring it under control, there's no excuse for stalling.

As The Lancet report states, "At a time when national health budgets and health services face a growing epidemic of lifestyle diseases, continued delay in unlocking the potential health co-benefits of climate change mitigation is short-sighted and damaging for human health."

Here's to climate action for all our health.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington.

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An alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, as seen here in Christmas Valley, South Lake Tahoe, California on Feb. 15, 2020. jcookfisher / CC BY 2.0

California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.

The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.

On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."