The world is seeing rising health risks linked to climate change, with children and pensioners particularly impacted, says a major new report created by medical journal The Lancet.
According to the report, children are more susceptible to disease, environmental pollutants and malnutrition since their bodies and immune systems are still developing.
Meanwhile, pensioners are increasingly at risk from the growing threat of heatwaves. The number of over 65s exposed to heatwaves globally was 220 million higher in 2018 than in 2000, says the report, which is a collective research effort from 120 authors and 35 global institutions.
“When we look at the indicators of the links between climate change and health, what we see is the indicators going in the wrong direction,” says Elizabeth Robinson, professor of environmental economics at the University of Reading and a co-author of the report.
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Damage done in early childhood can lead to lifelong health consequences, the report warns. For example, air pollution is especially damaging to young people, since their lungs are still developing.
Likewise, infants are particularly hit by malnutrition and related long-term health problems, such as stunted growth and weak immune systems. Children are also very susceptible to infectious diseases, such as dengue fever, which are increasing due to rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns.
Gautam Narasimhan, a senior adviser on climate at UNICEF, says his organisation sees the daily impacts of climate change on children’s lives in most countries worldwide, with the poorest, most vulnerable communities often bearing the worst effects.
“[Climate change] has the potential to undermine children’s rights and threaten gains made in child survival and development in recent decades,” he says. “Unless urgent action is taken to reduce emissions to mitigate climate change and support communities in building resilience, the worst for many children is yet to come.”
The report highlights the urgent need for change, but also points to some positive signs, such as increasing investment in clean energy technologies, and a rising awareness of the dangers of air pollution in cities.
The key message from the study, says Robinson, is that countries do have options when it comes to climate change. For example, she argues, there is a rising awareness that there is an alternative to simply putting up with air pollution in cities.
“We know the problem, we know the solutions, so it’s all about political will,” she says. “Imagine if governments just stopped subsidising fossil fuels, took that money and invested instead in clean energy and public transport, and in giving low-income households well insulated houses.”