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COP26 can save us from more than just a warming world

A new policy brief published by The Lancet suggests that although it is regarded as an environmental problem, climate change is ‘first and foremost’ a health crisis.

By now, we already know the massive impact COP26 could have on the trajectory of the human species. It’s been labelled as the ‘last chance’ we have to turn our destructive behaviours around.

Implementing serious climate policies that reduce emissions need to be written up right now, to put it mildly.

But aside from saving all of humanity from either burning or drowning by the end of the century, which doesn’t sound like much fun to me (or anyone I would imagine), it turns out immediate efforts to stamp out climate change could save us from getting physically and mentally ill today.

A report published this month by science journal The Lancet focuses on three environmental issues affecting the health of Americans this year: extreme heat, drought, and wildfires. Framing climate change as an important social issue ensures adequate measures are in place to protect those affected.

A focus on the effects

Most of us can recall at least one summer night we’ve spent struggling to fall asleep, throwing off our duvet, and searching for a cool spot on the mattress – so it should come as no surprise that extreme heat affects sleep quality.

But researchers have linked poor sleep to worsened mental health, higher suicide rates, and increased crime rates. This year’s heatwaves were also responsible for at least 600 people in US states like Washington and Oregon.

These lengthy bouts of hot weather then lead to drought, which causes water shortages, ruins crop yields, and increases job insecurity for those working in outdoor sectors like farming. As a result, people in rural areas are disproportionately affected by heat and drought, worsening existing inequities.

Heat plus drought equals – you guessed it, fire. Wildfires have been cropping up across the planet more frequently and during longer timeframes in the last few years, in fact, incidences of wildfire are eight times higher today than they were in 2001.

The subsequent smoke can travel nationwide – from California to Maine – containing harmful air pollutants, including carbon monoxide and ‘particulate matter’ that is associated with increased risks of heart and lung disease, premature death, and birth complications.

This all sounds pretty bleak and policy will certainly need to change to deal with these problems. Luckily, The Lancet has a three-step plan, which outlines how to protect us from extreme weather while stronger climate policies are actioned.

Adaptation

Currently, air conditioning is the primary way people escape from extreme heat, but these systems rely heavily on fossil fuels. To get to the root of the problem, building designs must incorporate ways to be cooler without reliance on additional systems.

Amongst these techniques are ‘cooling technologies such as heat pumps, home retrofits and weatherization, cooling roofs for buildings, and increased greenspace and water bodies in urban environments (e.g., tree planting, fountains) for neighbourhoods.’

These types of planning measures will reduce health risks, cool public spaces, and protect from other aspects of climate change for the long term.


Economics & Finance

When extreme weather events occur, they come at huge costs to governments. In fact, $32 billion was spent on health costs as a direct result of the 2018 wildfires in California.

Investing into green energy would not only help prevent these disasters from getting worse and more regular but would also reduce the need for public (and out-of-pocket) spending on healthcare services due to environment related illnesses.

Attempts to quantify the total social costs of carbon emissions are still unmeasured, but based on the available numbers, further data collection would only act to strengthen the argument for ceasing fossil fuels in the name of a better quality of life.


Mitigation

Finally, as we transition away from reliance on fossil fuels, the opportunity to correct quality of life disparities and environmental injustices follows.

Exposure to air pollution is higher for Black, Latinx, Alaskan Native or American Indian, Asian American or Pacific Islander, and other people of colour – regardless of their income or location in the US.

In response to this discrepancy, the report suggests that a focus of reducing emissions in areas most impacted should take precedence during this stage – which honestly, sounds like a sound approach.

Of course, these are just some of the highlights from their suggestions for how to treat climate change as a problem for the planet and human health alike. To read the report, click here. We’ll be watching leaders of COP to see if any of these ideas are included

 

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