Is climate change our most significant health challenge?

August 2019

This blog was originally posted on the Action for Global Health website. Thank you very much to AfGH for raising awareness of this vital issue.

On May 1st 2019, UK parliament declared a climate change emergency, following increasing pressure from campaigners. Now, urgent action is needed to save our planet and our health.

Earth’s climate is changing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says human-induced warming reached approximately 1°C above pre-industrial levels in 2017.

Multiple sources of evidence show this is already changing our weather, oceans, ecosystems, and more. And things are set to get much, much worse.

According to the US Global Change Research Program (and the vast majority of climate scientists), most of the climate change of the past half-century has been caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases and has been far too rapid to be a natural occurrence (current warming is occurring roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming). 

The increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere over the last 2,000 years. Increases in concentrations of these gases since 1750 are due to human activities in the industrial era. Source: USGCRP 2009.

The health emergency 

Aside from the looming ecological crisis (the IPCC says a 1.5°C average rise may put 20-30% of species at risk of extinction), we are also facing a global health emergency.

The 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change was formed to map out the impacts of climate change and the necessary policy responses to ensure the highest attainable standards of health for populations worldwide. They concluded that climate change could undermine the last 50 years of gains in global health.

Many experts agree that climate change is already a medical emergency demanding an emergency response. In 2015, the World Health Organization called for urgent action to protect health from climate change. In 2018, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, reaffirmed the call and acknowledged the lack of progress: “We cannot delay action on climate change. We cannot sleepwalk through this health emergency any longer.”

In 2019, 74 US medical organisations joined forces to sound the alarm calling the climate crisis a health emergency: "…health risks in the future are dire without urgent action to fight climate change." 

Despite these expert views, governments are failing to address the serious nature of climate change, with action that is too little, too late. The UK government, for example, is falling well behind its own unambitious targets, which were already unlikely to halt a climate catastrophe. 

Health impacts

If climate action isn’t increased dramatically over the next decade, our health and lives will suffer. Hundreds of premature deaths were linked to the recent heatwaves (July 2019 being the hottest month ever on record) and this is a tiny fraction of the predicted global impact expected in the not too distant future. Already climate change is damaging the health of millions of people, according to researchers. 

The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change highlights the many links between climate change and poor health outcomes, including: harvest failures leading to malnutrition; respiratory disease from pollution; social breakdown (such as increase in mass migration, poverty and violent conflict ) damaging our health; and environments that are more favourable for infectious and vector-borne diseases.

Meningitis and climate change

At Meningitis Research Foundation, we’re very aware of how climate and weather patterns can influence disease. 

In 1998 we funded work looking to forecast meningitis epidemics. Its findings suggested that it could be possible to make predictions using environmental models. If meningitis could be linked to climate, could climate change have an impact on meningitis cases?

Meningitis outbreaks are linked to high temperatures and airborne dust, and epidemics are more common in sub-Saharan Africa than in other parts of the world. An area known as the ‘Meningitis Belt’ – due to the high number of cases seen – runs across this strip of Africa. This area had hundreds of thousands of cases of meningitis during major epidemics of meningitis in the 1990s, and expansion of the meningitis belt is already evident and is likely to progress with climate change in Africa. Researchers from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research modelled potential changes to the environment in Nigeria. Their results suggest future temperature increases due to climate change have the potential to significantly increase meningitis cases in both the early (2020–35) and late (2060–75) twenty-first century, and for the seasonal onset of meningitis to begin about a month earlier (on average by late century, in October rather than November).

Interviews with community members in Ghana who had experienced meningitis epidemics found that they were unanimous in their opinion that changes in temperature, as well as decreases in rainfall, were factors influencing outbreaks.

Meningitis is passed by prolonged close contact, and so situations that make this more likely could increase cases. Meningitis has occurred in refugee campspilgrimages and at mass gatherings, for example. If climate change leads to increased migration, as predicted, this could also lead to an increase in meningitis cases.

Meningitis is just one example of diseases that could be affected by the climate emergency we now face. The good news is that technology already exists that could help combat climate change by helping to mitigate against further climate change (reducing emissions of and stabilising the levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) or provide ways to adapt to the climate change already in the pipeline. It’s now up to our governments to create policies to incentivise these, or face increasing demands on health budgets as a consequence. 

More information on climate change and meningitis will be presented at the 12th International Meningitis Conference held at The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London on 5-6th of November, 2019.

Key meningitis data and estimates can be found on the Meningitis Progress Tracker.

Since the charity was founded in 1989, we have awarded 161 research grants. The total value of our investment in vital scientific research is over £19.1 million (€24.7 million).
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About the author

Rob Dawson
Director of Advocacy, Communications and Support

I joined in 2016 after seeing the great work the charity does to help people affected by meningitis and septicaemia. I have worked in communications for a range of sectors and bring experience from industry, charities and government.

Tel: 0333 405 6262