People’s health is being damaged today by climate change through effects ranging from deadly heatwaves in Europe to rising dengue fever in the tropics, according to a report.
Billions of hours of farmwork has been lost during high temperatures and global warming has damaged the ability to grow crops, it said.
The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change was produced by 150 experts from 27 universities and institutions including the World Health Organization and the World Bank.
The Lancet report said the lack of progress “threatens both human lives and the viability of the national health systems they depend on, with the potential to overwhelm health services”.
“The findings are clear and the stakes could not be higher,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general. “We cannot delay action on climate change. We cannot sleepwalk through this health emergency any longer.”
The report sets out the impacts of global warming on health in stark terms. ”A rapidly changing climate has dire implications for every aspect of human life, exposing vulnerable populations to extremes of weather, altering patterns of infectious disease, and compromising food security, safe drinking water and clean air,” it said.
Nick Watt, the executive director of the Lancet Countdown, said: “These are not things happening in 2050 but are things we are already seeing today."
A survey in the report of leaders of almost 500 global cities found half expected their public health infrastructure to be seriously compromised by climate change, meaning systemic failures such as the shutdown of hospitals.
The Lancet report says populations in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean are at higher risk than those in Africa and south-east Asia because of the high proportion of vulnerable and elderly people living in cities. As temperatures rise across the world, the report says 157 million more vulnerable people were subjected to a heatwave in 2017 than in 2000. Hot conditions directly damage health via heatstroke, but dehydration and exacerbation of conditions such as heart disease are also very dangerous. Heat also worsens air pollution and mental health problems.
Prof Kristie Ebi, of the University of Washington, said: “Increased mortality in extreme heatwaves is happening now [but] there is abundant evidence that communities are not prepared for the ongoing increases in the frequency, intensity and duration of heatwaves.”
The Lancet report said 153bn hours of work were lost in 2017 due to extreme heat, 80% of it in agriculture. Almost half the losses were in India, equivalent to 7% of its total working population, while China lost the equivalent of 1.4% of its workers. “This has led to vast losses for national economies and household budgets,” said Prof Joacim Rocklöv of Umeå University in Sweden.
Relatively small changes in temperatures and rainfall could cause large changes in the transmission of infectious diseases spread via water and mosquitoes. The ability of the dengue fever virus to be transmitted – its “vectorial capacity” – reached a record high in 2016, according to the report, 10% above a 1950s baseline. The danger from cholera risk was also rising in regions such as the Baltic states where the sea has been warming rapidly.
“It is clear that climate change is directly impacting our health,” said Howard Frumkin, head of the Wellcome Trust’s Our Planet, Our Health programme. “All sectors must prioritise action on climate change if we are to significantly reduce the potentially devastating impact on our planet and our health, affecting generations to come.”