COP26: The climate crisis is a health crisis with many lives at stake – Marina Politis

Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year worldwide from just four causes – 38,000 due to heat exposure in the elderly, 48,000 due to diarrhoea, 60,000 due to malaria, and 95,000 due to childhood under-nutrition.

Extreme heat can be life-threatening with 70,000 additional deaths recorded during a European heatwave in 2003 (Picture: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images)
Extreme heat can be life-threatening with 70,000 additional deaths recorded during a European heatwave in 2003 (Picture: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images)

Air pollution alone is already responsible for an estimated 40,000 excess deaths a year in the UK.

As COP26 approaches, we must, therefore, talk about the health impacts of the climate crisis, for it is also a health crisis. Indeed, global warming affects the social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter.

Extreme temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, particularly among elderly people. In the heatwave of summer 2003 in Europe, for example, more than 70,000 excess deaths were recorded.

Last month, we saw the hottest September day in 115 years, with the temperature reaching 28.6C in Charterhall in the Borders. We may have enjoyed lounging in our gardens but it is a warning sign of what is to come.

Additionally, the number of weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled globally since the 1960s. Every year, these disasters result in over 60,000 deaths, mainly in lower and middle-income countries.

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This year, we saw parts of north-west Europe under water and the Mediterranean on fire, and this will increasingly become our new norm. Importantly, these climate catastrophes have long been affecting the Global South disproportionately despite the Global North producing the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, and we must ensure the narrative surrounding the climate crisis is not solely Euro-centric.

As we continue to live through a global pandemic, it is essential to mention the climate crisis’s impact on infection.

Changes in climate are likely to lengthen the transmission seasons of important vector-borne diseases and alter their geographic range; and we may see increasing zoonotic infections (diseases of animals that start to infect humans).

This year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that we are on track for a true catastrophe, sounding what was described as a “code red for humanity” – and only strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide will limit climate change. If we do not act now, and act fast, it will be too late. As part of this action, we must rapidly decarbonise our economy by 2030 to limit temperature rises to within 1.5C.

As a medical student, I am concerned about my future as a doctor, when the greatest threat to human health, the climate crisis, continues to be sidelined. Our economy is making us sick, harming our physical and mental health, increasing inequality, and producing emissions and pollution that are root causes of the climate crisis. We cannot turn a blind eye to the illness we are inflicting on our planet, for the health and wellness of our population is not possible without planetary health.

If we allow global warming to reach 2C, many more people will die. The climate crisis is a health crisis, and we must treat it as such.

Marina Politis is the former deputy chair of the BMA Medical Students Committee. She is on Twitter @marinadpol.

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