WASHINGTON (CBS DC) — Climate change will have a “disastrous effect” on health across the world, with a global “medical emergency” being posed by the growing effects of changing climate patterns.

A new report from The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change finds that the human health risks of climate change have been underestimated. Changing patterns of disease, water and food security, increased vulnerability of human settlements and “extreme climatic events” may set back the last 50 years of gains in global health.

“Climate change is a medical emergency,” Commission Co-Chair Professor Hugh Montgomery, director of the University College London Institute for Human Health and Performance, said in a statement. “It thus demands an emergency response, using the technologies available right now.”

The report lists both direct and indirect effects of climate change, citing vector-borne disease – including malaria — that will “expand their reach and death tolls” as well as indirect effects on water cleanliness and human settlements. Climatic events such as storms, floods forest fires and droughts are also listed in the report collaborated with University College London.

“We know that in the event of a heat wave, and in particular the repeat heat wave, the mortality rate as the result of heart attack and heart failure increases substantially,” study co-author Nick Watts, the Commission’s Head of Projects, told CBS News. “On the flooding side of things, there’s the spread of infectious disease that occurs as you get a breakdown in sanitation. In terms of drought, often one of the worst impacts is that it decreases agricultural yield, increases food prices, and then as a result causes malnutrition.”

“A new advocacy and public health movement is needed urgently to bring together governments, international agencies, non-governmental organizations, communities, and academics from all disciplines to adapt to the effects of climate change on health,” write the researchers.

Such climate change policy actions include reducing reliance on fossil fuels, creating more pedestrian and bicycle friendly environments, as well as reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to decrease rates of obesity, diabetes, respiratory disease and cardiovascular.

“What the report finds, in summing up all of this, is that by 2020, most of the things that you’d like to do for climate change, if you put them in place, you would have net benefits for GDP (gross domestic product),” Watts said. “There’s a number of reasons why these benefits would exist, but one of the most important reasons is that they increase public health. If you increase public health, you reduce hospital and health care costs and you end up with a healthier workforce.”

Experts emphasize that immediate, universal effects on people’s health will resonate a concern for climate change issues far more than theoretical or political discussions on the topic.

“No matter where people’s views fall on climate change or humans’ role in it, we share common goals in human health,” Dr. Perry Sheffield, assistant professor in preventive medicine and pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told CBS News. “This report helps quantify that even if you don’t think climate change is going to cause any problems, the solutions suggested are worthwhile anyway because they will help save lives.”

The Lancet Commission created a follow-up to the report through a worldwide, independent coalition called Countdown to 2030: Climate Change and Health Action. The group will issue a biennial report on progress seen in public policies.


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