By Jake Sturmer, ABC.net.au, June 23, 2015
|Coal-burning power plant|
Climate change poses such a threat to public health it risks undoing the gains of the past 50 years, a major study has found.
The Lancet Commission on climate change and health found the threat had been underestimated, but that tackling it could be a huge opportunity to improve global health.
"The effects of climate change are being felt today, and future projections represent an unacceptably high and potentially catastrophic risk to human health," said the report published in British medical journal The Lancet.
"The direct effects of climate change include increased heat stress, floods, drought, and increased frequency of intense storms, with the indirect threatening population health through adverse changes in air pollution, the spread of disease, food insecurity and under-nutrition, displacement, and mental ill health.”
Last year, the World Health Organisation predicted that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.
More than 40 researchers from across Europe and China have spent more than a year compiling the Lancet Commission report, which builds on work done in 2009.
The 2015 edition has identified several significant opportunities to improve human health by tackling climate change.
"Given the potential of climate change to reverse the health gains from economic development... tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of this century," the report said.
"Many mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change are 'no-regret' options, which lead to direct reductions in the burden of ill-health, enhance community resilience, alleviate poverty, and address global inequity.
"Health professionals have worked to protect against health threats, such as tobacco, HIV/AIDS, and polio, and have often confronted powerful entrenched interests in doing so.
"Likewise, they must be leaders in responding to the health threat of climate change."
The report also said: "Many of the 2,200 coal-fired plants currently proposed for construction globally will damage health unless replaced with cleaner energy alternatives. As part of the transition to renewable energy, there will be a cautious transitional role for natural gas.”
Deliberately timed for this year, it is hoped the report will directly influence decision makers ahead of the United Nations climate change conference in Paris in December. It has made 10 recommendations for governments, including the "rapid phase out of coal" to "protect cardiovascular and respiratory health”.
'They come at the report like doctors'
Nobel laureate Professor Peter Doherty said the report assessed the situation from the perspective of health professionals.
"Anything that has an environmental effect will also have a human effect and that's what they emphasise very much in this report," Professor Doherty said.
"They come at the report like doctors, they say well these are the symptoms, we understand the cause and we have to treat the underlying cause.”
The report recommended governments "invest in climate change and public health research, monitoring, and surveillance”.
"[This would] ensure a better understanding of the adaptation needs and the potential health co-benefits of climate mitigation at the local and national level," the report said.
But it is the health impacts of wind farms that has caught the eye of Australia's premier public health research body.
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has allocated $2.5 million to assess the health impacts of wind turbines.
The NHMRC's comprehensive review of wind farms released earlier this year found no consistent evidence that wind farms cause adverse health effects in humans but "given the poor quality of current direct evidence ... high quality research into possible health effects of wind farms ... is warranted”.
Professor Doherty said it was a waste of time and money.
"One of the basic principles of medical research is you don't do research that will have no useful outcome," he said.
"If it goes ahead and like every study that's been done it finds there are no ill health effects — that will convince none of these people so it's a complete waste of money.
"There are wind farms everywhere in Scandinavia... maybe the fact that the ABC and SBS have so many Scandinavian murder programs reflects the bad psychological impact of wind farms, but I don't think anyone's tried to establish that link."