In unprecedented bid, health science journals unite and call for ambitious climate action

More than 200 health journals called on governments to take action on the climate crisis as targets to reduce emissions are still not enough to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius (a target that many already see as not ambitious enough).

It’s an unprecedented move — the first time such a large number of publications have come together to make the same statement, which shows how severe the situation has become. It’s not just a climate crisis, it’s a health crisis.

Image credit: Flickr / Jeanne

“The risks posed by climate change could dwarf those of any single disease. The COVID-19 pandemic will end, but there is no vaccine for the climate crisis. Every action taken to limit emissions and warming brings us closer to a healthier and safer future,” World Health Organization head Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. 

The joint editorial was published simultaneously in 233 international journals, including The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Chinese Science Bulletin and the Medical Journal of Australia. It’s being published one week from the UN general assembly and less than two months from the COP26 climate summit in the UK — two events that could mark a turning point in our climate woes, but could also bitterly disappoint.

Health journals and health professionals have been warning for decades about the growing effects of the climate crisis, such as extreme weather events, rising temperatures and degradation of ecosystems. Far from being just isolated events, these will be taxing on people’s health, affecting especially the most vulnerable people in society, including poor communities, minorities, and the elderly. 

An urgent crisis

The editorial notes health is being affected by rising temperatures and the destruction of the natural world, with the risk of causing “catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reserve” if the current trends continue. The world can’t wait for the Covid-19 pandemic to pass in order to reduce emissions, the journals all agreed. 

Only “fundamental and equitable” changes to societies can reverse the current trajectory the world is facing. Governments have to make big changes to how societies function and how we live. This includes redesigning transportation systems, cities production and distribution of food, financial markets and the entire health system. 

“Health professionals have been on the front line of the covid-19 crisis, and they are united in warning that going above 1.5°C and allowing the continued destruction of nature will bring the next, far deadlier crisis,” Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of The BMJ and one of the editorial’s coauthors, said in a statement. “Wealthier nations must act faster.”

The same unprecedented funding provided by government for the Covid-19 pandemic has to be replicated for the environmental crisis, the editorial reads. Large investments will be needed but this will bring positive health and economic outcomes, such as reduced air pollution levels, improved housing and diet and high-quality jobs.  

Rich countries that have created the environmental crisis need to step-up their game, providing support for low-income and middle-income countries in the climate crisis. The editorial calls for them to fulfill even go further beyond the $100 billion a year financial pledge made as part of the Paris Agreement – which so far hasn’t been met. 

However, pulling the brakes on our emissions doesn’t have to damage the economy. In fact, when we factor in all the hidden costs of climate change (such as the health cost), tackling it becomes cheaper than not doing so.

Health professionals have to do all they can to encourage the transition to a “sustainable, fairer, resilient and healthier” world, the editorial continues. They have to “proactively contribute” to prevent further damage from the environmental crisis and act on the “root causes” of the crisis. This includes “holding leaders accountable.”

“The changing climate is endangering us in many ways, including its critical impacts on health and healthcare delivery. As medical practitioners, we have an obligation not only to anticipate new healthcare needs but also to be active participants in limiting the causes of the climate crisis,” Eric Rubin, editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, said in a statement. 

The Paris Agreement on climate change calls to limit the temperature increase to 2ºC or ideally 1.5ª to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. But we are very far from that. Based on the current pledges by governments, the world is heading to a 3º to 4º warming. There’s still time to revert this but we do have to act right now. 

The full editorial can be read here. 

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