SINGAPORE – The climate crisis is often treated as an environmental problem, but global warming could also have serious repercussions on human health.
Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO), in its special report on climate change and health, warned that the world must limit warming to 1.5 ° C above pre-industrial levels to avoid catastrophic health impacts and prevent millions of climate change related problems. deaths.
From zoonotic diseases to devastating forest fires and heat waves, human health is already being affected by rising temperatures and destruction of the natural world.
Climate action aligned with the Paris Agreement – which aims to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees C, preferably 1.5 degrees C, above pre-industrial levels – would directly save and improve millions of lives. many others.
While climate change and health have traditionally been viewed as two separate issues, it is crucial to make connections between the two.
When temperatures exceed the 1.5 ° C threshold recommended by climatologists, health risks increase.
According to the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change – an international collaboration dedicated to monitoring the changing health profile of climate change – changing environmental conditions also increase the ability to transmit many waterborne substances from the air. , food and vector-borne pathogens in many places.
Climate change can threaten years of progress in public health and sustainable development.
Singapore is not immune to the health threats of climate change.
For example, Singapore was blanketed in haze from forest fires in the region in June 2013, causing air quality there to reach dangerous levels. During this period, the number of asthma patients admitted to hospitals increased by 30 percent.
The link between air pollution and health was further illustrated in a 2016 study by Harvard and Columbia universities, which showed that the haze from Southeast Asia may have caused around 100 000 premature deaths – including 2000 reported in Singapore.
Climate change has also been linked to an increase in the incidence and severity of allergies, including asthma and allergic rhinitis, and could impact mental health as well.
As the world braces for the impacts of climate change, “eco-anxious” individuals are gripped by anxiety. In a global survey of 10,000 young people by the University of Bath – a research university in Britain – nearly 60% said they were worried about climate change, and 45% said that worry had a negative impact on their daily life.
The detrimental effects of environmental crises – such as extreme weather events – disproportionately affect the countries and communities that have contributed the least to the problem, noted editors of more than 200 medical journals, including the British Medical Journal and the New England Journal of Medicine.
In September of this year, they simultaneously published editorials calling for urgent action to tackle climate change.
“Equity must be at the center of the global response,” the editors noted, saying countries must account for their cumulative historical contributions and contribute their fair share to the global effort, with the richer countries cutting back on their emissions. faster.
At the societal level, equity should also be at the heart of climate action to ensure that protection against the impacts of climate change is also considered for all, especially the most vulnerable.
For example, people who work outdoors, communities without access to resources like air conditioners, older people with relatively poorer physical functioning, or people with chronic illnesses are also more vulnerable to climatic stressors. like heat stress.
In a 2020 heat vulnerability report, a local research consortium called Cooling Singapore found that physical exposure to heat varies widely in different parts of Singapore and throughout the day.
Those who live in areas with less green space might feel the heat more intensely than in other parts of the island, as do households with less funds for air conditioners and workers who spend long hours at home. ‘outside.
The health sector is also contributing to climate change, said Ms Pats Oliva, communications officer in the Southeast Asia office of Health Care without Harm – an international non-profit group that works to reduce the environmental footprint of healthcare – in an interview with Third Spacing Podcast.
She explained that healthcare depends on the consumption of fossil fuels and that 71% of carbon emissions come from the healthcare supply chain, such as the production, transportation and disposal of goods and services.
A recently released global roadmap for decarbonization of healthcare produced by the non-profit group in collaboration with Arup, an independent design company, showed Singapore to be a top emitter alongside the Australia, Canada, Switzerland and the United States.
Immediate and aggressive measures must be implemented to reduce emissions, according to the report, if the global health sector is to avoid tripling its emissions by 2050.
Ms Oliva said there are many ways to do this, including eliminating non-essential plastics, implementing sterilization techniques instead of disposables, switching to a clean and renewable energy source and increasing natural ventilation through windows.
The report found that in Singapore, around 9% of healthcare’s climate footprint comes from emissions from facilities such as hospitals and healthcare vehicles, while 91% of emissions come from energy. used for cooling and heating and the healthcare supply chain.
When it comes to actions Singapore’s healthcare sector can take, the report recommends investing in net-zero emissions buildings and infrastructure and powering healthcare facilities with electricity from renewable sources. , such as solar panels.
In the climate crisis, health workers will be on the front line as they were during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Beyond the administration of care, healthcare professionals have a position of trust in society, Ms. Oliva said. “We must build on this advantage to truly achieve a health sector fully engaged in the fight against climate action,” she added.
Research on the intersection of health and climate change can help us focus our efforts.
Dr Warwick Anderson, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Sydney, said discussions about the effects of climate change on human health place an “ethical demand” on people to take climate action . He said in a podcast: “It has a direct impact on the health of our patients, our neighbors and our communities. It makes the message on climate change more personal and urgent.”
Ms. Victoria Haldane, Co-Chair and Co-Founder of Emerging Leaders for Environmental Sustainability in Healthcare, said: “We need healthy people on a healthy planet. And we must promote the health of the planet while providing high quality, safe and effective health care, because you cannot have one without the other. “
As the world progresses towards climate targets, current targets are far from sufficient to limit the rise in temperatures to 1.5 ° C.
The global response to Covid-19 has shown that world leaders have the capacity to rethink the status quo, to act urgently and to impose necessary but costly measures to protect public health.
It is time we reacted to the planetary emergency in the same way.
With all eyes on the decision-makers at the ongoing COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, we can only hope that more urgent action will be stimulated. Every degree avoided is a health disaster avoided.
- Ms. Ching Ann Hui is a final year medical student at the National University of Singapore and host of the Third Spacing health podcast (@thirdspacing).
- Ms. Woo Qiyun is an environmental communicator, who founded The Weird and Wild on Instagram (@theweirdandwild) which she uses as a platform to communicate about environmental issues through creative visuals and graphics.