The biggest threat to human health right now? It's not the pandemic

·5 min read

Watch: Climate change is affecting us every day

It's tempting to think that if the pandemic is ever over, we'll be safe once more. That, however, would be to ignore the biggest threat to both human health and the planet itself: Climate change.

Successive governments have attempted various carbon reduction strategies in recent decades, with falling emissions targets and recycling laws. But according to World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking last month, “the risks posed by climate change could dwarf those of any single disease."

This week, over 200 prestigious medical journals worldwide released a joint editorial that left no room for doubt

“The science is unequivocal." They wrote. "A global increase of 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average and the continued loss of biodiversity risk catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse.”

Sad a boy with friend sitting on dry ground.Concept hope and drought.Asia.
Climate change will dramatically affect future generations. (Getty Images)

The scientists agreed that governments and world leaders can't wait for the pandemic to end before tackling the issue, and insist that climate change needs to be approached with the same sense of speed and commitment to emergency planning as COVID-19.

Read more: Climate change disasters hammer home importance of infrastructure plans, Biden says

Not only is climate change a threat to the earth, as rising temperatures melt glaciers and spark the devastating and lethal forest fires seen in Australia, Greece and America, along with floods across the world due to rising water levels and failing crops thanks to widespread drought. 

It also affects wildlife which provides crucial balance in the delicate eco-system.

Watch: How climate change is fuelling natural disasters around the globe

"Climate change exacerbates threats like habitat destruction, overexploitation of wildlife, and disease," says the charity worldwildlife.org. "From the shrinking habitat of the polar bear to increased water scarcity driving human-wildlife conflict, these changes will become more pronounced in years to come."

Birds, fish, insects and mammals are under threat, with the combined effects of climate change and mass industrialisation already responsible for the extinction of thousands of species over the past 50 years. It's now estimated that a further 30% of plant and animal species are likely to disappear if temperatures rise by more than 1.5°C over the next decade, due to lack of food and water and changes in their habitats.

Leopards are just one of many species whose habitats are threatened by climate change. (Getty Images)
Leopards are just one of many species whose habitats are threatened by climate change. (Getty Images)

And it's not just animals. Alongside enormous disruption and displacement of populations caused by floods, hurricanes, fires and drought, human health is dramatically impacted by the effects of pollution and climate change.

It's caused by the rise in carbon dioxide and various greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphere, largely from fossil fuel emissions and large-scale farming. Burning fossil fuels also has a dramatic impact, as "the polluted air contains small particles that can induce stroke and heart attacks by penetrating the lungs and heart" reports National Geographic Magazine, "even traveling into the bloodstream. 

"Those particles might harm the organs directly or provoke an inflammatory response from the immune system as it tries to fight them off."

Shockingly, it's now estimated that air pollution causes up to 9 million premature deaths a year, across the globe. 

Asian woman are going to work.she wears N95 mask.Prevent PM2.5 dust and smog
Air quality has reduced noticeably in many cities globally, due to fires and pollution. (Getty Images)

Wildfires, which have dramatically increased in recent years, are also potentially lethal not just to wildlife but to people living in the area. The smoke from the fires can travel thousands of miles. During the California wildfires in 2020, New Yorkers noticed a haze in the air, which was revealed to be due to the smoke's drift eastwards across the country.

Fires now account for 25 percent of dangerous air pollution in the US and the smoke carries particulates of everything that has been burned, including rubber, plastics and chemicals, which can penetrate deep into the bloodstream and lungs.

Of heat-related human deaths, over a third are a result of climate change, according to a study in Nature Climate Change - and even higher in less well-off countries. The body is not supposed to cope with temperatures of over 37°C, and continual overheating causes muscles to degrade and impacts heart function. 

Young people from different countries showing their ideology
Climate protest and activism is growing. (Getty Images)

The impact of rising temperatures also affects crops, meaning malnutrition is more likely, and the sea, which makes fishing less viable. And the heat also boosts disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes and raises the likelihood of water-borne infections.

Read more: Climate change and pollution make allergies worse: 'Like pouring salt on the wound'

Unless things change radically, climate studies all indicate the situation will only worsen in the near future.

However, due to the Paris Agreement, most countries have agreed to limit global warming to below 2°C -1.5°C by cutting their emissions, while grass roots organisations such as Extinction Rebellion are drawing attention to the world's plight, and activists such as Greta Thunberg are calling on governments to do more, faster.

It's not too late to challenge the biggest threat to life and health humanity has ever seen - but the clock is ticking. 

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