Climate change the biggest single health threat facing humanity – WHO

·3-min read
Burning fossil fuels is killing us, the WHO warns (Rui Vieira/PA) (PA Archive)
Burning fossil fuels is killing us, the WHO warns (Rui Vieira/PA) (PA Archive)

The burning of fossil fuels “is killing us”, the World Health Organisation has warned in a report calling for ambitious climate action.

The WHO’s report, issued in the run-up the UN Cop26 conference in Glasgow where countries will be under pressure to raise ambition on tackling climate change, warns it is the single biggest health threat facing humanity.

The climate crisis threatens to undo the past 50 years of progress in development, global health and poverty reduction, it says.

Climate change is leading to death and illness from increasingly extreme weather such as heatwaves and floods, disruptions to food systems, increases in disease spread and mental health issues.

Fossil fuels are fuelling the climate crisis, as well as causing millions of premature deaths every year from air pollutants, the report said.

It calls for governments to commit to a green, healthy recovery from the pandemic, making sure efforts are aligned to the goals of the global Paris Agreement on tackling climate change, focus on 100% green stimulus spending and end fossil fuel subsidies.

The WHO report also calls for action to prevent and prepare for the next pandemic, commit to vaccine equality and address inequalities at the root of the current climate and health crises.

The report lays out further recommendations to deal with climate change, including prioritising action with the largest health, social and economic gains, promoting sustainable and healthy cities, and transport and food systems, restoring nature, and moving to an economy based more on wellbeing.

“The burning of fossil fuels is killing us,” the WHO report said, and also warned: “Climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity.”

While no one was safe from the health impacts of climate change, they were disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, it added.

The same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO

An open letter from 300 organisations representing at least 45 million doctors and health professionals worldwide has been published alongside the report, calling for leaders and negotiators at Cop26 to step up climate action.

The letter, signed by dozens of UK organisations including the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians and Save the Children, warns that health professionals are already responding to harms caused by climate change.

It urges governments to take action to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, beyond which the worst impacts of climate change are set to be felt.

The letter urges: “We call on the leaders of every country and their representatives at Cop26 to avert the impending health catastrophe by limiting global warming to 1.5C, and to make human health and equity central to all climate change mitigation and adaptation actions.”

As the report and letter were released, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the intimate and delicate links between humans, animals and our environment.

“The same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people.

“WHO calls on all countries to commit to decisive action at Cop26 to limit global warming to 1.5C – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s in our own interests.”

Dr Maria Neira, WHO director of environment, climate change and health, added: “It has never been clearer that the climate crisis is one of the most urgent health emergencies we all face.”

But measures such as bringing down air pollution would reduce the number of global deaths from the problem while dramatically cutting greenhouse gases, and a shift to more nutritious, health-based diets would reduce emissions and avoid up to 5.1 million diet-related deaths a year by 2050, she said.

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