The Climate Emergency is a Health Emergency

The Climate Emergency is a Health Emergency

Views expressed are the writer’s and do not reflect the views of HASA.

By Elsabé Brits

In 2023, the world experienced the hottest global temperatures in over 100,000 years, and heat records were broken on every continent, exposing people worldwide to deadly harm.

The last annual report of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change reveals the grave and mounting threat to health of further delayed action on climate change, with the world likely to experience a 4.7-fold increase in heat-related deaths by mid-century.

The report also highlights how climate inaction is costing lives and livelihoods today. In 2022, individuals were, on average, exposed to 86 days of health-threatening high temperatures, of which 60% were made at least twice as likely to occur because of human-caused climate change.

Healthcare systems are the first line of defence for protecting people from the growing health harms of the changing climate. But even the current 1.14°C heating puts severe pressure on health services.

Every health dimension tracked by the Lancet Countdown worsens as the climate changes. For the first time, this year’s report provides a disturbing glimpse of what could lie ahead in a heating world.

Under this scenario, projected yearly heat-related deaths will increase by 370% by mid-century, with heat exposure expected to increase the hours of potential labour lost globally by half, including South Africa.

During the past ten years, 94% of children under one were exposed to more heatwave days annually than the equivalent demographic from 1986-2005. Adults over 65 saw a 145% increase across the same time frame. For these two groups, extreme heat can be particularly life-threatening.

The hotter seas are also making coastal brackish waters increasingly suitable for transmitting some Vibrio pathogens. People can contract Vibriosis by eating raw or undercooked seafood or by getting seawater in an open wound. The changing climatic conditions also put more populations at risk of life-threatening infectious diseases like dengue, malaria, and West Nile virus.

Life-threatening infectious diseases may spread further by mid-century.

In 2020, more than 10,000 deaths in South Africa were attributable to small particulates generated by human activities. Of these deaths in 2020, two-thirds were caused by burning fossil fuel. The same year, coal accounted for 90% of the country’s electricity output.

In the face of such dire projections, adaptation alone cannot keep up with the impacts of climate change. “The costs are rapidly becoming unsurmountable,” says Professor Stella Hartinger, Director of the Lancet Countdown Regional Centre for Latin America.

“We must go beyond treating the health symptoms of climate change to focus on primary prevention. The root causes of climate change must be tackled through rapidly accelerating mitigation across all sectors to ensure the magnitude of health hazards do not breach the capacity of health systems to adapt. Unless governments finally start to act on these warnings, things will get much, much worse.”

Despite the scale of the challenges, the report outlines the life-changing health benefits that could come from a health-centred transition to a zero-carbon future that prioritises equity and justice within climate action.

At the heart of this ambition is a commitment to enabling and supporting an accelerated transition to clean energy and energy efficiency in low-income countries.

“Empowering countries to transition from dirty fuels towards local, modern renewable sources of energy, would not only bring immediate health benefits, but also reduce socioeconomic and health inequities, by developing local skills, generating jobs, supporting local economies, and delivering energy to off-grid areas to electrify homes and healthcare facilities, particularly in areas where energy poverty still undermines people’s health and wellbeing”, says Professor Ian Hamilton, Lancet Countdown lead.

Responding to the report’s publication, UN Secretary-General António Guterres says, “Climate breakdown has begun, and humanity is staring down the barrel of an intolerable future. We are already seeing a human catastrophe unfolding, with the health and livelihoods of billions across the world endangered by record-breaking heat, crop-failing droughts, rising levels of hunger, growing infectious disease outbreaks, and deadly storms and floods.

“There is no excuse for our collective inertia. Only powerful and immediate action will limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C and avert the very worst of climate change. The evidence is unequivocal—a just and equitable transition from fossil fuels to renewables together with a global surge in adaptation investment will save millions of lives and help protect the health of everyone on earth.”

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