Over 200 scientific medical journals from around the world have come together to simultaneously publish an editorial calling on world leaders and health experts to recognize that climate change and biodiversity loss are part of one indivisible crisis and must be addressed together to preserve health and avoid a catastrophe.
by Irma D’Aria
Environment and health, one emergency
The authors say it is a “dangerous mistake” to respond to the climate crisis and the nature crisis as if they were separate challenges and urge the World Health Organization to declare this indivisible crisis a global health emergency.
L’editorial has been published by major publications around the world, including The BMJ, The Lancet, JAMA, Medical Journal of Australia, East African Medical Journal, National Medical Journal of India and Dubai Medical Journal.
The poorest pay the highest price
Human health is directly damaged by both the climate and nature crises, and it is the poorest and most vulnerable communities that often pay the greatest price, the researchers write. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, air pollution and the spread of infectious diseases, exacerbated by climate change, are some of the major threats to health.
The effects of water scarcity
Access to clean water, for example, is critical to human health, yet pollution has worsened water quality causing an increase in waterborne diseases, while ocean acidification has reduced quality and the quantity of seafood that billions of people rely on for food and livelihoods.
Biodiversity: not only food but also medicines
The loss of biodiversity also compromises good nutrition and limits the discovery of new medicines derived from nature, while changes in land use have forced tens of thousands of species to come into closer contact, increasing the exchange of pathogens and the appearance of new diseases and pandemics.
Contact with nature and health benefits
Communities are healthier if they have access to high-quality green spaces that help filter air pollution, reduce air and soil temperatures, and provide spaces for physical activity. Contact with nature also reduces stress, loneliness and depression, promoting social interaction – benefits that are put at risk by the continued increase in urbanisation.
We are doing too little
In December 2022 the Conference on Biodiversity (COP15) reached an agreement to conserve and effectively manage at least 30% of the world’s land, coastal areas and oceans by 2030. However, the authors note that scientists from climate and nature that provide evidence for COPs continue to work too separately and many commitments have not been met.
Ecosystems on the brink of collapse
“All this has allowed ecosystems to be pushed ever further to the brink, significantly increasing the risk of disruptions in the functioning of nature,” the researchers warn. “Even if we managed to keep global warming below a 1.5 degree increase above pre-industrial levels, we could still cause catastrophic damage to health by destroying nature.”
This risk, combined with the serious health impacts that are already occurring, means that the World Health Organization should declare the indivisible climate and nature crisis as a global health emergency, before or during the World Health Assembly of May 2024, they write.
What can be done
To address this emergency it is necessary to align the COP processes (that on climate and that on biodiversity), they add. As a first step, the respective conventions must push for better integration of national climate plans with their biodiversity equivalents.
Health experts must be strong advocates for restoring biodiversity and fighting climate change for the sake of our health, while political leaders must recognize both the serious health threats arising from the planetary crisis and the benefits that can accrue from dealing with the crisis. “But first we must recognize this crisis for what it is: a global health emergency.”
by Donatella Zorzetto
The journals’ editors supported a petition calling for the WHO to declare a global health emergency at the World Health Assembly in May 2024, launched to coincide with the publication of the editorial.