Climate change is a 'medical emergency'

Many fear that if action is not taken to prevent climate change, we could wake up to a dystopian future. (Gallo)

Many fear that if action is not taken to prevent climate change, we could wake up to a dystopian future. (Gallo)

The world will be up to an average of 5°C warmer by the end of this century. Science says this will utterly change the world and the environment that human beings rely on to live. Numerous reports on that change paint a dystopian future, where humans are constantly assaulted by floods, droughts, crop failures and myriad other ecosystem failures.

In the last month several reports have tried to look at the impacts that this change will have on human health. These all point to a world where the diseases are exacerbated in both impact and the resultant death toll. Most affected will be children.

Emergency response required

The Lancet commission on health and climate change had similar warnings in its findings, published late last month. It looked at current deaths from global warming – such as record-breaking heatwaves in Europe killing tens of thousands of people – and flooding from hurricanes hitting higher ground thanks to increased sea levels.

Professor Hugh Montgomery, the commission’s co-chair, said at the launch, “Climate change is a medical emergency.” This required the same kind of response that was traditionally reserved for short-term emergencies, using all the technologies available now to lower carbon emissions and adapt to the change, she said.

That technology could avert serious health disaster in the future, the commission found.  By cutting carbon emissions within the next few decades, it said premature deaths from air pollution could be cut by 500 000 a year by 2030. Two-million deaths could also be saved each year by 2100.

Last year the World Health Organisation said that one in eight premature deaths each year are due to a combination of indoor and outdoor air pollution. This equates to seven-million deaths a year, it said. In another report, it calculated that 88% of the years of life lost as a result of climate change – through ill-health, disability or early death – fell on children in developing countries. The causes of death ranged from malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea and inland flooding, it said.

“Climate change opposes the health gains achieved by social development, and may hold back progress in the poorest countries.”

Children to be most affected 

No Time For Games, a report by Australian-based Doctors for the Environment, said that climate change poses a significant and growing threat to public health. But it would be those who did little to cause the change who would be the most affected: “It is our children who, despite being the least responsible for causing it, unfairly bear the brunt of the impact.”

Children were already vulnerable to failings of the economy, society and ecosystems, the report said. “Children are more liable to succumb to bacterial or viral food and waterborne infections.” This was due to their consuming more liquids, placing contaminated objects in their mouths, and their higher metabolic and breathing rate, it said. 

Diarrhoea is the second-leading cause of death for children under the age of five, according to the World Health Organisation. Around 750 000 children a year die from this alone, and the WHO predicted that this number would only increase thanks to a changing climate.

The reports also point to the less physical impacts of disaster. In 2001 the World Health Organisation warned of the psychological dangers of climate change exacerbated disasters. It said that up to half of all people exposed to natural disasters develop mental diseases. These range from depression or anxiety, to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Irreversible climate change

In its five-yearly report on climate change report, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said last year that the world would be up to an average of five degrees warmer this century. This change would be “irreversible” and would completely change life on earth, it warned.

Until 2050 the majority of climate change health impacts would be felt through the exacerbation of existing problems, it found. This ranges from more conditions such as asthma to heatstroke. 

Beyond 2050 temperature increases would substantially change life, it said. Temperatures would be so high that the human body would be unable to handle the heat. This would mean unprotected outdoor labour—as well as recreation—will be impossible, it warned.

South Africa’s main climate change research and planning—the Long-Term Adaptation Scenarios—warn that the interior of the country will be up to 6°C warmer by the end of this century. Coastal regions will warm by half that, but will have to deal with increasing sea levels. 

The impacts of this change will be numerous and profound, the scenarios warn. Communicable diseases (TB, cholera and HIV/Aids) and noncommunicable diseases (respiratory and cardiovascular) would be the most keenly-felt. But there would be myriad other health problems—from mental and occupational health stresses to heat stress and malaria. 

These would be put on top of existing stresses, such as low crop yields and water scarcity to create an environment in which people struggled to survive, the scenarios warn.


Every single research group concluded that these potential health disasters could be avoided by lowering carbon emissions. Before the Industrial Revolution kicked off, carbon emissions in the atmosphere were at a level of 250 parts per million. This year they reached an average of 400 parts per million. At this rate, the UN warns that average temperatures will increase by up to 5°C this century. 

To avoid this, world governments are holding global climate negotiations in Paris in November – at COP 21 – in order to reach some sort of an agreement to lower carbon emissions. By cutting emissions by up to 80% by the middle of the century, negotiators have said temperature increases could be kept below 2°C.

But the consensus on COP21 seems to be that an agreement will be signed, but without the ambition required to lower carbon emission to a level that would keep the world below such a temperature increase.

Sipho Kings


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