Climate change is biggest threat to human health

It’s easy to speculate about how we are doing on climate change. We can all spot the solar panels or electric cars appearing here and there. But can we be more systematic than this?

As a doctor concerned about climate change, I have found major reviews in the Lancet, a world-renowned medical journal, provide a valuable starting point of reference.  Their first in 2009 identified climate change as potentially the biggest threat to global health of the 21st century. The second in 2015 identified climate action as perhaps the biggest opportunity for health improvement, given that so many of the actions we need to take are great for both climate and health. Climate change is not just an environmental issue but it’s a health issue, and as such it’s a matter of life and death.

The Lancet has now set up a ‘Countdown’ on climate change and health, identifying 41 indicators to measure progress on climate change. These don’t just focus on climate impacts and carbon reduction but include measures related to finance and public and political engagement. This indicator list could provide a useful starting point for measuring progress locally.

Some of their indicators are obviously relevant. Impacts of heat waves and floods are two examples. Preparing for these will require up to date risk assessments and adaptation plans so these are also important indicators. Air pollution is unsurprisingly included, and is an issue of which there is already some awareness locally. Progress on energy use and patterns of food consumption are harder to assess.

Several of their indicators on finance are relevant. Divestment from investments in fossil fuel is explicitly identified as a measure of progress. Locally, neither the Cambridgeshire Pension Fund, nor the University of Cambridge, nor most of the colleges have divested from fossil fuels. More broadly, investment in climate action in Cambridge appears to be woefully small, compared to the scale of change needed.

How engaged are Cambridge’s politicians, local media and big organisations? Climate change is increasingly talked about but until it’s prioritised and properly financed we won’t make the progress we need to avoid catastrophic impacts.

Developing a local set of indicators informed by the Lancet Countdown would help identify what more needs to be done in Cambridge. It is only by looking at the numbers related to climate change that the pace and scale of change needed becomes apparent. This can appear daunting but it also reveals the scale of opportunity we have for changing things for the better.

Article by Dr James Smith, first published in Cambridge Independent.