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Feeding your mind, saving the planet >>

Researchers: Curbing Global Warming Would Boost Public Health

Monday, November 30, 2009

Taking steps to confront the threat of a warming planet would have the huge added payoff of making people healthier around the globe, a group of scientists have concluded in a unique package of new research papers.

The health “co-benefits” of cutting greenhouse gas emissions include significantly cutting rates of heart and artery disease, respiratory infections, strokes, various cancers, lung disease and dementia, the scientists found. They argue that the financial savings from these health gains could offset a significant portion of the economic cost of reducing emissions.

The 55 scientists from nine countries conducted this research over the last year in a project coordinated by Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They released the six research reports and accompanying commentaries in a special issue of The Lancet, a British medical journal, and at simultaneous conferences last week in Washington and London.

The research is being published just days before President Obama and other world leaders are scheduled to meet in Copenhagen to try to make progress toward a new global climate change pact. One of the scientists’ goals is to put the public health payoffs  on the agenda of the international negotiators, who until now have given them scant attention.

“Climate change threatens the health of human populations worldwide, but particularly in low-income countries,” Haines wrote in a commentary in The Lancet.  While much attention has been paid to the threats of disease and disaster that a warming climate will bring, he said, “What has been less widely understood, however, is that policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could often have more immediate and potentially large effects on population health.”

“The effort to discuss climate change in the context of public health is an absolute necessity,” said Environmental Working Group senior scientist Anila Jacob, M.D., who attended the Washington presentation.   “Most of us who live in richer countries hear about this issue and think of the polar bear and melting Arctic sea ice thousands of miles away.  In reality, climate change has profound implications for public health here and now, and this should serve as a call to action to all of us.”

One of the six papers in The Lancet addresses the role of farming. The Australian and British authors concluded that the only way for agriculture to meet its climate change targets globally would be to bring about a 30 percent cut in livestock production in the countries with the largest livestock sectors. Raising food from animal sources is the major contributor to emissions from agriculture, they noted, and currently global trends are in the other direction – toward an 85 percent growth in livestock production by 2030.

Obviously, it’s a huge reach to think that this trend could be significantly slowed, let alone reversed. But the scientists calculated that if livestock consumption could be reduced by 30 percent, the reduced intake of saturated animal fats would cut premature deaths from heart disease by 17 percent -- both in developed countries such as Britain and in rising economies such as Brazil. The payoff would be especially significant in developed countries that consume large amounts of meat. In Britain, for instance, the researchers calculated there would be 18,000 fewer premature deaths each year.

In another paper, the researchers said that substantial health benefits could be achieved by improving household energy efficiency and better indoor air quality, particularly in India and other countries where hundreds of millions of poor people cook with primitive, highly-polluting stoves that burn wood or other organic fuels. Replacing them with clean-burning $50 stoves would prevent the deaths of about 240,000 children under age 5 who die yearly from respiratory infections. It might also avert more than 1.8 million adult deaths a year from heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Other papers looked at the health benefits of promoting travel by foot and bicycle rather than in cars, reducing electricity generation by coal, and controlling short-lived greenhouse gases such as methane, soot (black carbon) and ozone.

In an opening presentation by video, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius told the two conferences that:

 

Relying on fossil fuels leads to unhealthy lifestyles, increasing our chances for getting sick and in some cases takes years from our lives. As greenhouse gas emissions go down, so do deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. This is not a small effect.

 

Several conference participants said it was high time for health care professionals to take a much more active role in the debate over climate change and to talk to their own patients about the health risks it poses -- and the substantial gains to be made from taking action to reduce emissions.

The research frames the climate change debate in a new way. It will be interesting to see if it gains traction in Copenhagen.