“Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century… We call for a public health movement that frames the threat of climate change for humankind as a health issue” — The Lancet and University College London Commission on Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change, 2009
Leading medical journals and health professional organizations have begun to endorse the evidence and amplify the message that air pollution and climate change both pose serious challenges to global public health and therefore must be addressed as public health issues.
According to the WHO, approximately 7 million premature deaths per year result from exposure to air pollution, making it the world’s largest environmental health risk. Approximately half of the burden is attributable to outdoor air pollution, which comes from the combustion of fossil fuels and contributes to deaths due to ischaemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and respiratory infections.
The burning of fossil fuels is also responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. By causing or intensifying extreme weather events, food and water insecurity, and the migration of infectious diseases, climate change exacerbates global health challenges.
The Role of the Health Sector
The global public health community has a unique opportunity to serve as an interlocutor between the scientific evidence on the harmful effects of fossil fuel-based energy generation and the health benefits of policies that mitigate air pollution by transitioning to clean, renewable energy.
In countries ranging from India to South Africa, Poland to the Philippines, Australia, the United States, and China, health professionals are increasingly documenting the negative health impacts of the dirtiest forms of energy such as coal, and the health benefits of clean, renewable energy such as solar and wind. Public health associations and other health institutions in many of these countries are taking positions that advocate for a move away from fossil fuels and toward a healthy energy future.