Another Reason To Get Serious About Climate Change: Your Health

A study from Duke University adds to the growing evidence of the link between public health and climate change.

If the US drives down emissions enough to meet the 2°C threshold, air pollution would also drop significantly, preventing 295,000 premature deaths from respiratory and heart disease over the next 15 years.

Burning fossil fuels is literally killing people and our planet. "By curbing emissions, you score on two fronts," says lead author, Drew Shindell.

Particulates from fossil combustion are the main culprit, spewing soot and smoke into the air. When inhaled, they penetrate deeply in the lungs, increasing the risk of cancer and heart disease, while also stoking climate change in the form of black carbon. Another problem is ground-level ozone, which irritates and inflames the respiratory system, and mercury, lead, and other toxics found in carbon emissions.

Car Emissions

Published in Nature Climate Change, the research by Duke and NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies shows that by 2030:

  • 75% drop in transport emissions saves 120,000 lives
  • 63% drop in energy emissions saves another 175,000 lives
  • $250 billion per year boost to the economy from lower health costs, increased consumer spending and the transition to clean energy.

You can see how the costs of transitioning to clean energy pale compared to the benefits. When EPA introduced the Clean Power Plan, it also issued a report on health impactsfor Americans.

Worldwide, about 7 million people died in 2012 from air pollution, according to the World Health Organization – an incredible one in eight of all deaths.

Lancet Report

Last year, The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health released a comprehensive review on public health impacts of climate change, calling it a "medical emergency."

Compiled by experts across medicine, climate science, engineering and economics, it points to places like the US West – where extensive drought and heat has triggered increasingly widespread, intense wildfires that releases particulates, affecting peoples’ health hundreds of miles away.

They also drill down to impacts of carbon emissions few would even think about. Increased carbon in the atmosphere lowers the amount of zinc in major food crops, for example, already creating nutritional deficiencies in 1 billion people across the world.

"We have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realize economic and development gains in the present," instead of respecting the interconnectedness between human civilization and nature, they say.

"Human action is undermining the resilience of earth’s natural systems, and in so doing we are compromising our own resilience, along with our health and, frankly, our future," says Dr. Judith Rodin, President of The Rockefeller Foundation.

"These environmental changes threaten the gains in health that have been achieved over recent decades and increase risks to health as diverse as under-nutrition and food insecurity, freshwater shortages, emerging infectious diseases, and extreme weather events," says report Chair Andy Haines, Professor at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

"Whether we’re talking about land use, deforestation, degradation of global fisheries, disruption of the climate system, biodiversity loss, appropriation of fresh water, changes to aquatic systems – all of the changes are profound and they’re accelerating, and they represent a significant challenge to global health," says lead author Samuel Myers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Read, "Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch," by The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission:

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