The climate crisis could inflict "catastrophic harm" on human health, warn over 200 medical journals

Coordinated editorial calls on the World Health Organization to declare a global health emergency

More than 200 medical journals are urging the World Health Organization to declare two intersecting ecological crises – climate change and biodiversity loss – a global health emergency, while warning of potential "catastrophic harm" to human health.

In an editorial published on Wednesday, a group of authors described the dire consequences associated with rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and the disappearance of wildlife.

Environmental issues linked to health are currently serious, the group writes, from the spread of infectious diseases to the rise in waterborne infections, to the impact of air pollution on health. For example, changes in land use have forced "tens of thousands of species into closer contact," increasing the exchange of disease-causing microorganisms and contributing to the emergence of new diseases.

"The climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity are harming human health, and they are interlinked," said lead author Kamran Abbasi, editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal.

"That's why we must consider them together and declare a global health emergency. Climate and nature scientists, as well as policymakers, have no choice but to address health and environmental crises together."

"Dangerous Mistake" Now, the authors are calling on the WHO to declare both issues a global health emergency at the next World Health Assembly in May 2024 or before, calling it a "dangerous mistake" to consider them as separate crises.

The editorial comes as world governments prepare for major climate negotiations: the next United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP) is set to take place later this year, and the COP on Biodiversity is scheduled for 2024.

Richard Smith, chairman of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, who coordinated the editorial, told CBC News that the global situation is becoming increasingly desperate.

He said record heatwaves, along with severe wildfires and storms, are just some of the climate problems currently unfolding in countries like Canada and the UK.

"But they are still relatively mild compared to what will happen in a few years if we don't change the situation radically," Smith added.

"Many people argue that we need to think of this as preparing for a war: suddenly everything must give way to solving such a serious problem."

WHO considers emergencies "sudden, unusual" However, the WHO has clear provisions regarding what constitutes a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC).

In the organization's International Health Regulations, it is described as an "extraordinary event" that has been determined to pose a risk to public health across international borders and potentially requires coordinated international response.

Typically, this also applies to events that are "serious, sudden, unusual, or unexpected."

SEE | Scientists issue "final warning" on climate change in UN report published earlier this year:

Scientists issue "final warning" on climate change 7 months ago Duration1:54 Leading climate scientists have released their final assessment report on climate change, stating that it's the last chance to limit anthropogenic global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels before the damage becomes irreversible. Dr. Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO, stated that the organization has been advocating strongly and loudly for many years that the climate crisis is a health crisis.

She also noted WHO's commitment to putting health at the center of the UN climate conference, with December 3rd marked as the first-ever "Health Day" dedicated to exploring the link between health and climate change.

But as for declaring global climate and ecological issues a PHEIC, Neira emphasized that such a decision would require careful consideration, as the problem is more chronic than acute and necessitates a long-term approach.

"Foremost Health Factor" Today and Tomorrow While climate change and biodiversity loss do not hit the world as suddenly as other recent public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented global spread of measles, many other health and climate experts have stressed that environmental issues still need close attention and the same designation given the global threat they pose.

"It's the foremost determinant of health today and tomorrow," said Dr. Gaurab Basu, Director of Education and Policy at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health's Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment. He agrees with the coordinated call for WHO to make an extraordinary statement.

"So, it's not a lot by itself," Basu said.

But he and others hope it will raise the stakes and bring together scientists, government officials, and policymakers to the same table during climate COP negotiations in the coming months.

Many countries also highly respect WHO, noted Smith, as the organization's statements influence the policy decisions of member states.

"I think it will lead to more action and will get a lot of attention," he added. "But I can't pretend that everything will suddenly become fine overnight."

Over 600 Deaths During British Columbia Heat Dome Here in Canada, numerous medical associations and advocacy groups, including the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) and the Canadian Medical Association, are making similar efforts to raise awareness about the impact of record summer wildfires and other extreme weather events on health.

This coalition has sent an open letter to Health Minister Marc Holland, urging recognition of these worsening issues as a public health emergency.

But any declaration of a public health emergency must be accompanied by efforts to develop more effective measures for adapting to extreme weather conditions and severe heat, as well as stricter rules regarding methane pollution and oil and gas emissions, said CAPE President-elect Dr. Samantha Green.

While Green said her organization has yet to receive a response from any federal officials, a report by Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, released on Tuesday, states that the intersection of climate and health is a key focus of the government.

The report describes the devastating health impacts of recent climate emergencies, including over 600 heat-related deaths during the 2021 British Columbia heatwave, along with 530 additional hospitalizations and a record 12,000 calls to 911 in one day.