Climate change is a health emergency. I am a medical student and climate activist, working with a group called Healthy Planet. Taking action on climate change and social justice is something I see as essential to my future duties of care as a doctor. Many of the changes we need to make in order to alleviate the impacts of climate change are those that should be done to improve the crisis in public health anyway. Our fossil fuelled economy is making us sick and continuing on the current trajectory will just increase the already widening health inequalities and the impacts this has on social welfare.
Many of the health impacts come directly through climate related floods, storms, wildfires and heatwaves, which are causing rising deaths and injury, an estimated 400,000 in 2012 (1). This year we’ve seen some of the worst droughts in history sweep across Australia, California, the middle East and Sub-saharan Africa. Climate change is a health emergency.
We’ve seen heatwaves kill thousands in India (2). We’ve seen bushfires, floods, receding ice and sea levels rise faster than expected threatening the existence of pacific island and low lying countries. This has contributed to food and water insecurity, and is a driving factor of increased migration and conflict (3). The ongoing conflict in Syria has been attributed in part to a mega-drought (4) which is now forcing many to make the long, dangerous and often life-threatening journey to Europe, and there is only likely to be more conflicts driven by similar factors in the near future. Climate change is a health emergency.
In the UK, economic losses due to our increasingly erratic weather are already putting a severe strain on many British farmers, whilst the flooding seen in recent years has been found to have profound effects on mental health. Climate change is a health emergency.
Loss of biodiversity is also threatening our ability to develop new medicines and regulate infectious diseases. We cannot separate the ecology from society, politics, economics and the impacts this has on health. In our globalised society, food price rises, economic impacts, climate-related population displacement and social unrest are likely to affect health everywhere.
However, the direct health impacts of fossil fuel extraction and combustion, at the heart of our capitalist economy, are often hidden amongst the dialogue of emissions reductions.
Take air pollution, caused primarily by the combustion of fossil fuels by transport and industry. We are living in a world where over 7 million people worldwide die prematurely of air pollution, that’s 1 in 8 deaths around the world (5), and 29,000 just in the UK (6). But premature mortality is only part of the problem: even at low levels, long-term exposure to particulate air pollution elevates the risk of respiratory diseases (such as asthma and lung cancer), cardiovascular disease, stroke and low birth weight. Such impacts occur across ages and geographical boundaries.
Think of the health benefits of transitions away from fossil fuelled powered transport? Not only would we be healthier, but it would save our health services a heck of a lot of money on preventable illnesses. There are also wider health benefits of this transition, which is likely to involve more accessible active transport, having the dual advantage of improving health through both cleaner air and increased physical activity, addressing the rising incidence of obesity at the population level.
Without even explaining climate science, tackling the injustices and health burden of air pollution could provide a powerful platform for climate action.
There is also the direct health impacts of fossil fuel extraction, which are devastating, and so often not discussed in climate circles.
Coal and oil extraction in particular are two of the highest-risk occupations, with the mining industry causing 8% of all occupational fatalities worldwide (7). There have been many barbaric incidences of mining companies clearing communities out of their homes to extract fossil fuels, leaving their water and air contaminated and causing cancers and chronic illness for generations.
More locally we are facing a major attack on public health through the government’s fracking plans. Health professionals have put together a report outlining the health risks of fracking ranging from carcinogenic chemicals contaminating land and water supplies, ecosystem degradation, noise and air pollution, and the contribution that continued fossil fuel extraction has on the health impacts of climate change (8). Continuing to ignore this evidence goes against our right to health and puts increasing strain on our healthcare services, which are already facing enough attack.
So why are these health impacts so often ignored?
It is clear that there are significant pillars of power that are dominating the narrative around climate change and we need to challenge this. It is within the interests of the rich 1% who profit from the fossil fuel industry to keep climate change strictly an environmental issue so that it is kept in a box outside the mainstream public sphere.
However, it is clear that climate change seeps into every aspect of our lives and this is seen most visibly with the impacts on health inequality. In the UK, low socio-economic populations are areas with the lowest rates of car ownership and those who suffer most from the health burdens of air pollution and road traffic injuries. In North America, indigenous American and Canadian communities and their lands suffer disproportionately from oil pipeline and oil sands developments. And globally, climate change is a contributing factor to numerous health inequities, with its health impacts hitting hardest those regions least responsible for historical carbon emissions. And of course, we rely on the rich biodiversity of our ecosystem and the health of the planet to survive. We cannot be separated from our dependence on a healthy planet.
Although the urgency in which we must act can seem daunting, once you enter into the global climate movement you realise how much hope and inspiration is out there and contained within humankind.
When I first became aware of the imminent threat of climate change, I started going along to local community meetings on fracking, air pollution and community renewable energy. I was surprised to find there weren’t that many people attending these meetings, and became increasingly anxious at the lack of awareness of the impact of the environment on our health. Before long, I met people from around the UK and the world fighting for climate justice and found renewed inspiration at this dedicated community recreating and transforming the global economy to ensure our ecosystem survives.
I have only been involved with the climate movement for just over a year, and since then we have seen incredible victories.
In January, Scotland announced a moratorium on fracking. Although this does not go far enough as it doesn’t include underground coal gasification, it has created an amazing network of dedicated communities who stood up for their right for uncontaminated water, clean air and a future for their children.
Last year I met those affected by opencast coal mining who had travelled from Colombia and Indonesia to tell their story of how their communities were being impacted by dirty energy. Devastating cancer rates, respiratory disease, infertile farmland, polluted water, ecological wreckage and displacement had caused the loss of many of their family. They are sick and tired of being forced to leave their homes by multinational corporations greedy for more fossil fuel money. This has spurred my energy towards the fossil fuel divestment movement, which resulted in a 10 day occupation of a university of edinburgh finance management building in May – one of the most empowering experiences of my life – and forced the University of Edinburgh to stop investing in coal and tar sands (9).
As a doctor in training I feel the need to shout about the health burden of the fossil fuel economy, and the amount of suffering and resources that is being given to preventable illnesses. The health narrative around tackling climate change is a powerful one, as it gives a tangible leverage point to highlight the injustices of our current system.
So far, there has been a strong emphasis on personal responsibility towards action on climate change, perpetuated by the media fuelled by the dominant neoliberal agenda which glorifies capitalist consumer culture. This sends out, what I think, is a damaging message that if we all change our lightbulbs and recycle more we will save the planet. I believe this often diverts attention away from the structural factors that continue to fuel the climate crisis.
Of course there needs to be a widespread culture change but the biggest barriers are found upstream. I urge you to join the global social movement for climate justice, by joining campaigns such as divestment, anti-fracking, challenging fuel poverty and air pollution, taking direct action and standing in solidarity with those at the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction.
But I also urge you to think about who holds the power in our society, and why that is, and ask how that power can be shifted to us, the people.
- DARA. Climate vulnerability monitor: a guide to the cold calculus of a hot planet. (DARA, 2012).
- Burke, Jason. ‘India Heatwave Continues As Death Toll Exceeds 1,000′. the Guardian. N.p., 2015. Web. 26 Sept. 2015.
- Harman, Greg. ‘Has The Great Climate Change Migration Already Begun?’. the Guardian. N.p., 2014. Web. 26 Sept. 2015.
- Peter H. Gleick, 2014: Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria. Wea. Climate Soc., 6, 331–340. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-13-00059.1
- Gulland, A. One in eight deaths is due to air pollution, says WHO. BMJ 348, g2379– g2379 (2014).
- Cooper, C. Air pollution linked to one in 12 deaths in London – and it takes six months off the average Briton’s life expectancy. The Independent at
- Smith, K. R. et al. Energy and Human Health. Annu. Rev. Public Health 34, 159–188 (2013)
- Medact Health impacts of fracking report
- The Guardian,. ‘University Of Edinburgh To Divest From Three Major Fossil Fuel Providers’. N.p., 2015. Web. 26 Sept. 2015.
This article first appeared in Bright Green – http://bright-green.org/2015/10/04/health-emergency/