The Greatest Threat to Public Health is Not COVID–It’s Climate Change

What is the greatest threat to global public health?

Many will argue it’s COVID-19.

That’s a reasonable claim since, as of this writing, there are 41,645,545 total confirmed cases in the United States alone, and 666,806 Americans have succumbed to it.

Globally, there are over 226 million confirmed cases and four million deaths.

With variants still mutating among the unvaccinated, COVID is something we are just going to have to accept as part of life for the foreseeable future.

However, according to more than 230 medical journals, the most severe threat to global public health is not COVID.

It’s climate change.

In a joint editorial released this week, editors call for “urgent action to keep average global temperature increases below 1.5° C, halt the destruction of nature, and protect health,” warning:

“The risks to health of increases above 1.5° C are now well established.2 Indeed, no temperature rise is ‘safe.’ In the past 20 years, heat-related mortality among people over 65 years of age has increased by more than 50%.4 Higher temperatures have brought increased dehydration and renal function loss, dermatological malignancies, tropical infections, adverse mental health outcomes, pregnancy complications, allergies, and cardiovascular and pulmonary morbidity and mortality.5,6 Harms disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, including children, older populations, ethnic minorities, poorer communities, and those with underlying health problems.2,4

Released just in time for the United Nations General Assembly and November’s Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, the British Medical Journal cited the number of medical publications for the first time unified around this statement indicates the situation is dire.

Editors insist:

“Despite the world’s necessary preoccupation with COVID-19, we cannot wait for the pandemic to pass to rapidly reduce emissions.”

Kaiser Permanente pulmonologist explained:

“Young kids are getting more and more admissions to the [emergency room] and the hospital with asthma exacerbations due to poor air quality. We’re seeing more heat exhaustion and heat-related illnesses. With climate change happening, the number of these cases will keep rising.”

New England Journal of Medicine editor-in-chief, Dr. Eric Rubin, added:

“We’ve seen a complete change in where the insects that carry diseases are spread. Lots of them were confined to tropical areas, and as the Earth gets warmer, they’ve been migrating further northward. And so the mosquitoes that carry a lot of the major diseases that affect Central and South America are here in the U.S. right now.”

COVID is one of those diseases.

The United Nations’ environment chief, Inger Andersen, asserts humanity’s overtaxing the natural world has dire consequences, one of them being the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Explaining that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases originate in the wild, Andersen asserts:

“Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people. Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbor diseases that can jump to humans.”

She warns:

“There are too many pressures at the same time on our natural systems and something has to give. We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.”

Zoologist Peter Daszak, who heads EcoHealth Alliance, an organization that studies the connections between human and wildlife health, said in an interview with Slate:

“You know how this story goes. First there’s the panic, the search for something or someone to blame. In the case of the novel coronavirus, there was the story that the outbreak got its start at a local food market in Wuhan. But stories like that can get in the way of the bigger picture: More and more people are also living and working closer to wildlife. It isn’t about one or two individuals putting people at risk. The risk also comes from clear-cutting rainforests, remote mining, and even widespread suburbanization.”

A study out of the University of the West of England and the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter hypothesizes that biodiversity and natural processes are “ultimately interlinked” with diseases.

Lead author, Dr. Mark Everard, explained:

“Ecosystems naturally restrain the transfer of diseases from animals to humans, but this service declines as ecosystems become degraded. At the same time, ecosystem degradation undermines water security, limiting availability of adequate water for good hand hygiene, sanitation and disease treatment. Disease risk cannot be dissociated from ecosystem conservation and natural resource security.”

Some phrases climate experts are using now are “record-shattering,” “out of time,” “unprecedented,” and even “irreversible.”

Several previously optimistic about our ability to mitigate the worst of the climate emergency are now becoming more cynical.

Today we have a “code red for humanity,” according to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres after the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading authority on climate science, released a major report warning Earth faces uncontrollable global warming unless nations take drastic measures to eliminate greenhouse gases.

The report unambiguously explains humans are “unequivocally” to blame for this crisis responsible for “widespread and rapid changes,” concluding that, based on carbon emissions presently in the atmosphere, average global temperatures will likely rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius–2.7 degrees Fahrenheit–above preindustrial levels by 2040.

In 2018, the IPCC released a report warning the world had 12 years to halt coal consumption and slash carbon dioxide emissions to prevent the atmosphere from warming more than this amount.

However, we have already crossed so many tipping points, even if we limit warming to 1.5 Celsius, some long-term damage is irreversible.

Only drastic emission reductions can save us from the worst of future catastrophe, but there is no going back to the way things were.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), February 2020 was the coldest on record in six years even though this winter ranked among the top-10 warmest in the Northern hemisphere.

A new study in the journal Nature concludes anthropogenic climate change could soon cause the collapse of ocean currents carrying warm water between the tropics to the North Atlantic.

Entire countries are at risk of annihilation within a century.

So what do we do?

Secretary-General António Guterres asserted:

“If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. But, as today’s report makes clear, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses.”

Each of the 197 countries meeting in Scotland for the Cop26 climate talks this year is being asked to arrive with plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and force new policy measures to shift the global economy away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy.

Sunrise Movement executive director, Varshini Prakash, who said she had woken “enraged” at the IPCC’s findingsadded:

“This latest IPCC report must be a wake up call for Biden and Congress that the half measures they’ve proposed are not nearly enough to end the climate crisis. Our politicians shouldn’t need a report to tell them how bad things are. We’re already living it.”

Last month, the U.S. Senate passed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes $7.5 billion each for electric vehicle charging stations and zero- and low-emission ferries and buses, including school buses.

$73 billion is intended for power grid infrastructure.

$46 billion is to be put toward flood, drought, and wildfire damage.

We’ve seen over the past four years how absent American example and leadership causes other countries to shrug off their environmental commitments.

Since his first day in office two months ago, President Biden has been working to either reverse or review “the former guy’s” all-out assault on the environment, including establishing the most progressive climate policy in history, demanding the federal government pause and review oil and gas drilling on federal land, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, and electrifying the government’s vehicle fleet.

We’ve seen over the past four years how absent American example and leadership causes other countries to shrug off their environmental commitments.

The good news is, since his first day in office two months ago, President Biden has been working to either reverse or review “the former guy’s” all-out assault on the environment, including establishing the most progressive climate policy in history, demanding the federal government pause and review oil and gas drilling on federal land, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, and electrifying the government’s vehicle fleet.

The bad news is Joe Biden is not the consistent progressive his initial months in office might suggest.

He has always been an incrementalist.

He still refuses to ban fracking.

He has vociferously distanced himself from the Green New Deal, the non-binding bicameral resolution calling for 100 percent net zero-emission power by 2030, a federal jobs guarantee, solid union jobs retrofitting and re-building crumbling infrastructure, universal health care, and affordable housing.

Despite shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline is still operating.

In a recent Lancet Planetary Health survey of 10,000 people age 16 to 25 in 10 countries, scientists found “widespread psychological distress” attributed to perceived government inaction.

Historic climate catastrophes, devastating floods, wildfires, hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, acidic oceans, inundated cities, extreme and persistent heat waves, and ocean circulation and the jet stream at their weakest in over a milleniathreaten to eliminate all life on Earth.

That isn’t hyperbole.

Look at the numbers.

Listen to the scientists.

We must now implement the measures we can take to avoid a bleak, hostile future environment filled with viruses worse than COVID, as National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director Anthony Fauci told McClatchy.

Image credit: Flickr

Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to The Left Place blog on Substack, Liberal Nation Rising, and Medium.