Members' Research Service By / October 10, 2019

Health threats from climate change: The time to act is now

On 1 October, the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) hosted the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) for a policy roundtable on climate change and human health.

Caroline Costongs, Director of EuroHealthNet, and the panellists

Written by Mark English and Nicole Scholz,

On 1 October, the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) hosted the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) for a policy roundtable on climate change and human health. EASAC brings together national science academies from across the EU, Norway and Switzerland.

With Greta Thunberg on the front pages worldwide, the urgent need to act on climate change is starting to capture the imagination of the public. Yet the specific threats that climate change poses to human health are less well-known, despite experts such as Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, sounding the alarm.

Drawing inspiration from the main findings of EASAC’s own June 2019 report, the roundtable focused on identifying the major health effects of climate change in Europe, analysing who is most at risk and assessing how EU policy might help. Cristian Bușoi, MEP, Vice-Chair of the Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) – a physician as well as a politician – gave the opening speech.

Speakers (the full list and bios are here) emphasised the gravity and immediacy of the threat and called for urgent action. Climate change will bring about a diverse range of risks for human health, through different pathways. Projections in Europe show a geographical gradient that increases towards southern Europe (Mediterranean region), but also with greater effects at the highest latitudes (Arctic). Extreme heat exposure will be particularly pronounced in cities (‘heat island effect’).

Health effects may be direct – from heatwaves, wildfires, storms or floods. They may also be indirect, resulting in a higher risk of vector-borne diseases (dengue fever, for example), due to the spread of disease-carrying insects into previously temperate zones. Negative health impacts from air pollution are also projected to rise, as are allergies (for instance, to ragweed pollen).

Vulnerable people, such as the elderly, children and marginalised groups, will be at a higher risk. Mental health effects likely to arise from climate change are also of serious concern. Moreover, climate change will potentially affect agriculture, thereby weakening food security. There is also a growing risk of forced migration, with a rise expected in the number of climate refugees.

According to the EASAC report’s findings, the top priority is to stabilise climate and accelerate efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Addressing the current and future health effects of climate change can provide substantial economic benefits, and the health co-benefits of decarbonising the European economy are likely to save millions of lives. Recommendations include a ‘health in all policies’ approach.

The need to make better use of existing evidence, invest in research, and base policy more closely on the results was a recurring theme in the discussion. Speakers also stressed the importance of engaging the public in action on climate change and health, and the need to improve communication on health risks, including by doing more to counter misinformation.

The EU-funded INHERIT project (final conference on 10 December) was highlighted during the roundtable. The project explores the close links between climate change and social disadvantage and aims to identify ways of living, moving and consuming that protect the environment and promote health and health equity.

There was also a discussion on how focusing on health issues – which by their nature interest everybody – could help further raise awareness of climate change and widen participation in debate, for instance around the new European Green Deal.

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