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Climate Crisis Is Generating Global Health Crisis, UN Agency Says

Written by on November 3, 2023

Climate change threatens to reverse decades of progress toward better health and well-being, particularly in the most vulnerable communities, according to a new report by the U.N. weather agency.

In its annual State of Climate Services report, the World Meteorological Organization on Thursday warned that the climate crisis was generating a global health crisis and said that many ill effects of climate change could be tempered by adaptation and prevention measures.

WMO said climate change was causing the world to warm at a faster rate than at any other point in recorded history.

“There is no more return back to the good old milder climate of the last century. Actually, we are heading towards a warmer climate for the coming decades, anyhow,” said Petteri Taalas, WMO secretary-general.

“Unless we are successful in phasing out this negative trend” by limiting global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, “we will see this situation getting worse,” he said.

The report finds countries in Africa and southern Asia are most at risk from climate change, which it says is fueling vector-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria, even in places where they were not seen before.

“And we are creating conditions for more noncommunicable diseases like lung cancer and chronic respiratory infections also, because of the bad quality of the air that we breathe,” said Maria Neira, director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at the World Health Organization. “The extreme weather events obviously will have dramatic consequences for the health of the people.”

FILE - World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas attends a press conference at the U.N. offices in Geneva, Oct. 12, 2023.
FILE – World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas attends a press conference at the U.N. offices in Geneva, Oct. 12, 2023.

Taalas noted that food insecurity also was growing, and that increasingly more frequent heat waves were worsening the impacts of extreme weather events.

“For example, in the Horn of Africa, during the past three years, we have had very severe food insecurity situations, which was related to both heat and drought,” he said. “And quite often in these episodes when we have heat waves, we have also very poor air quality.”

WMO said extreme heat causes more deaths than any other extreme weather event. It estimated that excessive heat killed approximately 489,000 people a year from 2000 to 2019, with 45% of these deaths in Asia and 36% in Europe.

It noted that heat waves also worsen air pollution, “which is already responsible for an estimated 7 million premature deaths every year and is the fourth-biggest killer by health risk factor.”

“There is a significant challenge by the health community to address climate change,” said Joy Shumake-Guillemot, who leads the WHO/WMO Joint Office on Climate and Health.

“We see major gaps, particularly in early-warning systems for climate-related impacts, such as extreme heat,” where only half of countries are now getting the message “about how dangerous heat conditions might be affecting them.”

She said the report focused on the power and opportunity of using climate science and services to better inform national policies.

However, while 74% of national meteorological services are providing data to the health systems in countries around the world, “only about 23% of ministries of health are really using this information in systematic ways in health surveillance systems to track the diseases that we know are influenced by climate,” she said, adding that climate services had to be further developed to address these gaps.

WMO chief Taalas agreed with this assessment, noting that climate information and services can play an important role in helping states manage extreme weather events, predict health risks and save lives.

FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2021, photo, a shepherd stands in a dry riverbed at Colesberg, Northern Cape, South Africa.
FILE – In this Sept. 24, 2021, photo, a shepherd stands in a dry riverbed at Colesberg, Northern Cape, South Africa.

For example, he said early-warning systems for extreme heat and for pollen to help allergy sufferers were very important. Unfortunately, he said, well-functioning early-warning services in African countries and other states were very limited.

“One of the sectors where African countries do not have services are these health services, and many African countries are not able to provide heat warnings for their populations, and their authorities have limitations in coping with such warnings,” he said.

To rectify this lapse, Taalas said WMO has established a major early-warning services program to help countries in Africa and elsewhere improve their management of environmental health and climate services.

“From our perspective,” he said, “it is very smart to prevent pandemics, and we can do so by improving the early warning services.

“This would prevent … the human casualties and we could minimize the economic losses by having proper early-warning services in place … and that is what we are very much promoting.”

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