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Failing to address climate change could set back progress on public health by 50 years, according to a new report published in the British medical journal The Lancet. But, the report's authors add, cutting fossil fuel use presents the greatest opportunity for improving the health of people worldwide in the 21st century.
Climate change presents direct human health threats by way of heat stress, floods, droughts, and storms, as well as indirect threats like food insecurity, the spread of disease vectors, displacement, air pollution, and mental illness.
"Climate change has the potential to reverse the health gains from economic development that have been made in recent decades - not just through the direct effects on health from a changing and more unstable climate, but through indirect means such as increased migration and reduced social stability," said Anthony Costello, Director of the University College London's Institute for Global Health and a co-chair of the study. "Our analysis clearly shows that by tackling climate change we can also benefit health. Tackling climate change represents one of the greatest opportunities to benefit human health for generations to come."
While the world's poor and developing nations with suffer the worst health effects of climate change, the report says no country will be immune to the impacts of a warming world and that temperature rise in the current century "may be incompatible with an organized global community."
In 2012, outdoor air pollution caused 3.7 million premature deaths around the world, according to the World Health Organization. Nearly 90 percent of those deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries.
In the United States, increased drought in the West is leading to longer and more active wildfire seasons, which produce smoke that can worsen air quality and cause health impacts hundreds of miles away from the conflagrations, according to the American Lung Association (ALA).
"Harm from worsened air pollution … takes a tremendous toll on people already suffering from chronic lung or heart disease, as well as children, older adults and people who work outdoors," ALA's senior scientific adviser Norman Edelman said. "The Lancet report focused on global examples; however, we see evidence here in the US that climate change is already affecting our air quality."
The Obama Administration echoed the medical journal's findings with the release of its own report on Monday outlining the health and economic benefits of taking action to ward off climate change sooner rather than later. By the end of the century, reducing emissions could result in 57,000 fewer deaths every year from poor air quality than if warming is left unchecked.
"The sooner we act, the better off America and future generations of Americans will be," US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said.
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