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Heatwaves, viruses, eco-anxiety: threats coming from climate change. In conversation with Francesco Tamilia

An estimated nine million people die from pollution each year. More people have died from climate change than Covid. The climate crisis «is also a health crisis and must be dealt with accordingly»

Francesco Tamilia on 2021 negative climate record 

On May 18th, 2022, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) published The State of the Global Climate Report 2021. Four key climate indicators broke negative records: greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise, ocean heat and ocean acidification.

United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, defined this as «the dismal litany of humanity’s failure to tackle climate disruption». In the meantime in India, they registered unexpected and unprecedented heat waves. This prevented the country from «feeding the world», as PM Modi had pledged to do.

This was in reaction to the food crisis worsened by the war in Ukraine. This is roughing millions more into hunger. Scientists say climate change makes heat waves like these a hundred times more likely. A new study published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal found that an estimated nine million people die from pollution each year. 

Need for a new way of thinking: a report by Francesco Tamilia

London-based Italian policy analyst, Francesco Tamilia, recently published a report entitled The Climate Crisis and its Health Impacts for the Public Policy Project (PPP). The report includes researchers and scientists to policymakers and healthcare professionals.

Additionally, more than thirty senior leaders in world-leading organizations also contributed to its development. «I wanted to make sure we involved cross-sector leaders, with different backgrounds predominantly on climate change and public health».

The climate crisis, Tamilia claims, «is also a health crisis and must be dealt with accordingly». Above all, it’s about ways of thinking. «In recent years, climate change has become a top priority for many countries. Almost daily we hear or read about climate-related news stories».

This can be a driver for positive change, but also make people feel powerless or disconnected. Often, the main issue is the focus of the stories we tell. «Many of these outline how climate-induced global warming will result in the next decades or in 30 or 40 years time in that disaster or cause X number of deaths and suffering».

As a result, «people still feel distant and cannot relate to climate change, simply because it does not (yet) have an impact on their health or those of loved ones». Confronting the damages we already experience might help increase a sense of urgency.

«The idea behind this report» Tamilia explains, «was to highlight how climate change is not only an issue for future generations. To the contrary, it’s already having adverse impacts upon people’ health»

Climate change: most threatening risks to human health

The World Healthcare Organization (WHO) defines climate change as «the single greatest threat to global health in the 21st century, affecting some of the most important determinants of health, including food, air and water».

The report analyzed some of the most worrying threats for human health «including heatwaves, poor air quality, infectious diseases and mental health (eco-anxiety)»

A Fridays For Future demonstration in Milan photograph by Diletta Bruni

Heatwaves: deadliest threat 

Heatwaves are one of the deadliest of all the impacts of climate change. According to the European Environment Agency, they reported more than 70,000 excess deaths across twelve European countries during the 2003 heatwave in Europe.

In the summer of 2020, the UK government estimated that heat waves caused a record 2,556 excess deaths. «The leading cause of illness or deaths during heatwaves are cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and heatstroke. Other less severe heat-related illnesses are heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat rash and heat oedema».

Risks do not end there: «Studies in the US and UK have also shown that extreme heat can have a detrimental effect in early life and during pregnancy contributing to premature births and low birthweight and increased risk of stillbirth,» the report says. 

Infectious diseases 

Global warming also negatively impacts the spread of infectious diseases. «The climate crisis is creating favorable conditions for the spread of deadly infectious diseases such as Dengue, a vector-borne disease». Diseases spread has gotten exponentially worse in the past few decades.

«The infections have doubled every decade since 1990, according to a report by the Lancet Countdown. A team of researchers has also estimated that changes in temperatures could result in at least an additional 3.6 billion people being at risk from malaria by 2071, relative to the at-risk population in 1970-99»

What we breathe: dangers for air quality 

It is no news that climate change and air pollution are closely connected. They are both caused roughly by the same human activities. «Speaking to PPP», Francesco Tamilia recounts, «Marcus Sarofim, Contributing Author of the US Climate and Health Assessment and Senior Scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that some pollutants have a climate effect; ozone is both an air pollutant and a greenhouse gas. Ozone pollution is accelerated by – and contributes to – climate change. The aerosols, black carbon, and sulfate all influence climate and health».

Wildfires also negatively impact air quality. Research shows that climate change can cause them. Air pollution drives are the same as those of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Solutions are at hand. At least, they should be.

«If national governments tackle those emissions and cut down on fossil fuel burning, we will also cut down on air pollution». This concept, Francesco Tamilia explains, «is referred to as ‘health co-benefits of climate change mitigation’».

For example, reducing global temperature rise to 1.5C rather than 2C, could avert more than 100 million premature deaths. This is over the 21st century globally due to improvements in air quality. In addition, about forty per cent of the benefit could occur during the next 40 years. It’s about changing perspective. 

A matter of public health 

Getting to net zero and achieving the Paris Agreement goals is «a health intervention». An aspect that is regularly overlooked by policymakers. The pandemic also meant a change in perspective. «The coronavirus pandemic» the report reads, «has shown how much of a global priority public health is».

Especially in terms of money: «Record-breaking funding and government legislations meant that countries took unprecedented steps to protect people’s health». With the consequence of global warming, the same does not happen.

Yet, more people have died for the consequences of climate change than they have for Covid. Yet, we don’t perceive this as an emergency or an immediate threat.

«A similar urgency to tackle the health consequences of climate change and framing this as a health issue» according to Tamilia, «can be the turning point». This should not mean living in an everlasting state of emergency but rather recognizing importance. 

Recommendations 

As a result of the report, he published a series of recommendations. These are suggestions for people and institutions who are in a position of power. To start with, WHO should consider revising the narrow disease-specific definition of public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC).

It should include climate change; National governments should then develop effective strategies to identify, address and review the health impacts of climate change in their countries. Improvements should include education as well.

Findings suggest it would be positive for medical schools to include climate change and its corresponding health impacts in the medical curricula. The use of clean energy should be encouraged. Policymakers must recognize the urgency of this issue.

As such, they should work towards effective policy changes, for example introducing strong early-system warnings. This should include a naming system for heat waves similar to storms, to raise public awareness.

Grassroots and institutional action

In order to keep the planet habitable, both grassroots and institutional action is needed. «They can benefit from each other’s success. If we are to reach UN climate goals, we truly need a joint effort».

On the one hand grassroots movements have to «keep up the pressure on the governments and policymakers». Policymakers, politicians and people with institutional power should verify the science and act accordingly. 

Carbon capture, use and storage

Looking at the future, Francesco Tamilia is planning to build upon the first report and investigate further. The focus for the work to come is going to be carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS). He explains that this is «a key technology that is vital to reach net zero».

The United Kingdom considers CCUS «an opportunity for economic growth in the country». The country’s long-term strategy hopes to capture 47 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) by 2050. «The report I am working on» Tamilia told Lampoon, «focuses on carbon capture and direct air capture. The report will be carried out in partnership with US Think Tank Third Way and UK’s Carbon Capture Storage Association (CCSA)».

On an operational level, «senior leaders in this policy space, alongside representatives from private and public sectors, will convene in three sessions to discuss the current and future progress of carbon management».

The role of Policy Analysts in the context of climate change and strategies to build our future on a planet at risk is going to be crucial. It is about learning from experts and putting different knowledge together, to design a way forward. 

Francesco Tamilia

Journalism graduate and works as a Policy Analyst for the Public Policy Project based in London, UK.

Matilde Moro

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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