University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: New global approach to tracking climate change and its impact on public health

New global approach to tracking climate change and its impact on public health

10/30/2017
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New research from 26 global institutions, including the University of Washington School of Public Health, points to climate change as a looming public health emergency. But experts also note that an accelerated response over the last five years has created “clear and unprecedented opportunities for public health.”

In a report in The Lancet medical journal published online Oct. 30, leading doctors, academics and policy professionals from across the world explore 40 unique indicators that measure the health impacts of climate change and assess the world’s response. Those indicators range from the health effects of temperature change to fossil fuel subsidies and investment in coal capacity.

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Howard Frumkin

“The Lancet Countdown is an exciting innovation—a global approach to tracking climate change and its health impacts, and to what we’re doing to control the root problem and to protect people in the face of the worst threats,” said Howard Frumkin, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences in the UW School of Public Health. “When you’re sick, your doctor routinely tracks key data such as your blood pressure and your blood counts; finally we’re doing that on a global level for this looming global health challenge.”

Frumkin was one of the only US authors for the global report. Research partners included the World Bank, World Health Organization, University College London, Tsinghua University, and the University of Colorado-Boulder. Together with 20 other organizations, they formed the Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change.

“Climate change threats to health are not far off in time or space,” Frumkin said. “They are here, now, ranging from catastrophic storms to severe heat to more infectious diseases to longer allergy seasons. The situation is urgent.”

Among the 2017 report’s key findings:

  • Researchers noted a 46 percent increase in weather-related disasters since 2000, causing $129 billion in economic loss.
  • Undernutrition is the largest health impact of climate change, with a 6 percent decline in global wheat yields and a 10 percent fall in rice yields for each additional 1 °C rise in global temperature.
  • A record 175 million people were exposed to heatwaves in 2015.
  • 87 percent of cities globally are in breach of World Health Organization air pollution guidelines, exposing billions of people to unsafe levels of atmospheric particulate matter.
  • Transmission of dengue, a mosquito-borne disease, has increased by 3 percent to 5.9 percent.

Despite slow progress, experts cited encouraging signs. The potential benefits and opportunities of responding to climate change are staggering, they said, and could lead to cleaner air, safer food and water, and more nutritious diets.

“Cities across the country are stepping up with effective heat action plans, to protect their most vulnerable citizens during heat waves,” Frumkin said. “Similarly, our nation is shifting our energy supply, with less reliance on coal, the most serious contributor to climate change, and more reliance on renewables such as wind and solar. This reduces the carbon intensity of our economy—and in health terms, that means preventing many serious health threats.”

Frumkin oversaw preparation of the Lancet Countdown’s US briefing, which he highlighted Nov. 6 during a presentation at the American Public Health Association annual conference in Atlanta.

“Health professionals are clear-eyed about major threats to population health,” he said. “We’re against dirty air and water, we’re against drunk driving, and we’re against smoking. As this report makes clear, we need to be against climate change too, because it threatens health in so many, and such serious, ways.”

Media coverage:

USA Today, Time (AP), The Atlantic, APHA TV