Climate change and chronic disease: twin perils and a golden opportunity to solve both

Smog1
A woman covers her face with a mask as she rushes to a subway station on a heavily polluted day in Beijing, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. Is it any wonder that chronic diseases are on the rise globally?

The global climate crisis presents enormous challenges to our current high-energy consuming lifestyle. Or does it?

Consider the following:

More than half of the U.S. population gets less than the recommended daily levels of exercise, contributing to rising rates of obesity and related diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

In the past decade, greenhouse gas emissions – responsible for the global climate crisis – increased at roughly twice the rate that they did between 1970 and 2000. About a third of these emissions comes from the transportation sector.

And globally, an estimated 7 million people die prematurely each year from air pollution.

The common link between these disease statistics and the warming of the earth's climate? Fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel combustion accounted for 78 percent of the total increase in carbon dioxide between 1970 and 2010. But burning oil, gas and coal also releases pollutants that harm respiratory and cardiovascular health in the short and long terms. This means that cleaner energy can help reduce the threat of global warming, while also saving lives from air pollution.

Clean energy strategies could avoid between 1 and 4 million deaths annually by 2050. And policy makers should know that the monetized value of human health benefits associated with improved air quality can offset up to 1,050% of the cost of low-carbon policies in the United States. The value of health dividends outweighs the costs of striving for an energy efficient, low-carbon economy.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates a return of $30 for every $1 invested in reducing air pollution through the Clean Air Act. So this shouldn’t be any surprise.

The health benefits of clean air must be front and center as President Trump and Congress discuss rolling back environmental regulations.

As incomes rise in developing countries, their citizens buy more cars and eat more meat. Chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease are rising globally in parallel. This link provides even more golden opportunities for public health through:

  1. adopting more alternative modes of transportation, especially those that promote “active transport” – on foot or by bicycle – alongside effective public transit; and

  2. reducing meat in the diet.

For example, American cities with the highest levels of active transport have, on average, obesity rates that are 20% lower and diabetes rates 23% less than cities with the lowest levels of active transport. Bicycle commuters in Copenhagen have a 39% lower mortality rate compared to other commuters. And commuting by bike in London could lower ischemic heart disease by an estimated 10 to 19%.

Dietary changes can result in dual health and environmental benefits as well. In the UK, if 50% of meat and dairy in the diet were replaced by fruit, vegetables and cereals, greenhouse gas emissions might drop by 19%. And more than 30,000 deaths a year could be averted by reducing saturated fat in the diet.

Current rates of chronic disease alongside rising use of the fossil fuels that cause climate change threatens our civilization. Yet their interdependence presents a golden opportunity to solve both simultaneously.

Jonathan Patz, MD, MPH, is a professor of environmental studies and population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he also serves as director of the Global Health Institute. Dr. Patz co-chaired the health report of the first Congressionally mandated U.S. National Assessment on Climate Change and was a lead author for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for 15 years.

Dr. Patz will be speaking at the Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health on Wednesday, March 8, at 12:15 p.m. For more details and a webcast, click here.


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