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Climate editorial calls for urgent action by world leaders

The chief editors of 17 health journals based around the world have simultaneously published an editorial in 233 international journals to address the climate crisis. The report makes an urgent appeal to world leaders to limit rising temperatures, halt the destruction of nature, and to restore biodiversity and protect health.

At a time when the world has been focused on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors of the editorial warn that the health impacts of climate change combined with the consequences of extreme weather events and the widespread degradation of ecosystems could be far more severe than the current pandemic. 

According to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, the risks posed by climate change could dwarf those of any single disease. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic will end, but there is no vaccine for the climate crisis. The IPCC report shows that every fraction of a degree hotter endangers our health and future. Similarly, every action taken to limit emissions and warming brings us closer to a healthier and safer future,” said Dr. Ghebreyesus.

This warning comes just prior to the UN General Assembly meeting which is one of the last international meetings to be held before the (COP26) climate conference in Glasgow, UK, in November. It is thus an appropriate time to urge the leaders of all countries to develop workable strategies to honor the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

The editorial authors state that the greatest threat to global public health in the future is the continued failure of world leaders to take adequate action to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C.

While there have been some recent commitments to reduce emissions and protect biodiversity, these fall far short of what is needed. The editorial urges governments worldwide to develop credible short- and long-term plans to limit global warming and to invest in the transformation of societies and economies. For example, there needs to be significant redesign of transport systems, cities, production and distribution of food, markets for financial investments, and health systems. These changes would bring much needed jobs, cleaner air, better health for citizens, improved housing and better-quality food.

According to the authors of the editorial, the global action needed would only be realized if high-income countries were to reduce their own consumption and support the initiatives in less developed countries. Developed countries have an outstanding commitment to provide $100 billion a year which, if fulfilled, would increase climate funding for less-developed countries that often bear the brunt of climate change catastrophes. 

The impacts of climate change are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable of populations in less-developed countries, including children, the elderly, ethnic minorities, poverty-stricken communities and those with underlying health conditions. With this in mind, the editorial suggests that money should be provided to low-income countries in the form of grants, and that the debts of these countries should be relieved so that climate change organizations on the ground can operate without constraints. 

Global warming affects all people on earth and the recent IPCC report shows that, until the world has reached net-zero greenhouse gases, the planet will continue to warm. It is the responsibility of governments to seize this opportunity to propose and plan ambitious climate goals in order to limit temperature rise and reduce the impact of a warming planet.

“As health professionals, we must do all we can to aid the transition to a sustainable, fairer, resilient, and healthier world,” wrote the experts. “We, as editors of health journals, call for governments and other leaders to act, marking 2021 as the year that the world finally changes course.”

Professor Lukoye Atwoli, Editor-in-Chief of the East Africa Medical Journal, and one of the co-authors of the editorial, noted that while low- and middle-income countries have historically contributed less to climate change, they bear an inordinate burden of the adverse effects, including on health. “We therefore call for equitable contributions whereby the world’s wealthier countries do more to offset the impact of their actions on the climate, beginning now, and continuing into the future.”

“Health professionals have been on the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis and they are united in warning that going above 1.5C and allowing the continued destruction of nature will bring the next, far deadlier crisis,” said Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor-in-Chief of The BMJ. “Wealthier nations must act faster and do more to support those countries already suffering under higher temperatures. 2021 has to be the year the world changes course – our health depends on it.”

Seye Abimbola, Editor-in-Chief of BMJ Global Health, said: “What we must do to tackle pandemics, health inequities, and climate change is the same – global solidarity and action that recognize that, within and across nations, our destinies are inextricably linked, just as human health is inextricably linked to the health of the planet.”

HE Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh and Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, emphasized that every country must pursue an ambitious target to curb greenhouse gas emissions to keep the global temperature-rise below 1.5ºC. “Developed nations should facilitate the green recovery of the CVF-V20 countries. Dedicated support is required for reducing the cost of capital and encouraging private sector participation. Strict implementation of the Paris Agreement is the only way to check global emissions and thereby global warming. The time to take action to save the planet is not tomorrow, but today.”

The editorial has been published in medical, nursing and public health journals around the world. These include The BMJ, The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, the East African Medical Journal, the Chinese Science Bulletin, the National Medical Journal of India, the Medical Journal of Australia, and 50 BMJ specialist journals including BMJ Global Health and Thorax. Never before have so many journals joined forces to publish the same message.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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