New analyses are revealing the scale of pollution on global health, with a disproportionate share of the impact borne by lower-income nations, minority and marginalized individuals. Common themes emerge on the drivers of this pollution impact, including a lack of regulation and its enforcement, research and expertise development, and innovative funding mechanisms for mitigation. Creative approaches need to be developed and applied to address and overcome these obstacles. The existing “business as usual” modus operandi continues to externalize human health costs related to pollution, which exerts a negative influence on global environmental health.
As a result of global increases in both temperature and specific humidity, heat stress is projected to intensify throughout the 21st century. Some of the regions most susceptible to dangerous heat and humidity combinations are also among the most densely populated. Consequently, there is the potential for widespread exposure to wet bulb temperatures that approach and in some cases exceed postulated theoretical limits of human tolerance by mid- to late-century. We project that by 2080 the relative frequency of present-day extreme wet bulb temperature events could rise by a factor of 100–250 (approximately double the frequency change projected for temperature alone) in the tropics and parts of the mid-latitudes, areas which are projected to contain approximately half the world's population. In addition, population exposure to wet bulb temperatures that exceed recent deadly heat waves may increase by a factor of five to ten, with 150–750 million person-days of exposure to wet bulb temperatures above those seen in today's most severe heat waves by 2070–2080. Under RCP 8.5, exposure to wet bulb temperatures above 35 °C—the theoretical limit for human tolerance—could exceed a million person-days per year by 2080. Limiting emissions to follow RCP 4.5 entirely eliminates exposure to that extreme threshold. Some of the most affected regions, especially Northeast India and coastal West Africa, currently have scarce cooling infrastructure, relatively low adaptive capacity, and rapidly growing populations. In the coming decades heat stress may prove to be one of the most widely experienced and directly dangerous aspects of climate change, posing a severe threat to human health, energy infrastructure, and outdoor activities ranging from agricultural production to military training.
Record rainfall amounts were recorded during Hurricane Harvey in the Houston, Texas, area, leading to widespread flooding. We analyze observed precipitation from the Global Historical Climatology Network with a covariate-based extreme value statistical analysis, accounting for both the external influence of global warming and the internal influence of El Niño–Southern Oscillation. We find that human-induced climate change likely increased the chances of the observed precipitation accumulations during Hurricane Harvey in the most affected areas of Houston by a factor of at least 3.5. Further, precipitation accumulations in these areas were likely increased by at least 18.8% (best estimate of 37.7%), which is larger than the 6–7% associated with an attributable warming of 1°C in the Gulf of Mexico and Clausius-Clapeyron scaling. In a Granger causality sense, these statements provide lower bounds on the impact of climate change and motivate further attribution studies using dynamical climate models.
Many of the world's saline lakes are shrinking at alarming rates, reducing waterbird habitat and economic benefits while threatening human health. Saline lakes are long-term basin-wide integrators of climatic conditions that shrink and grow with natural climatic variation. In contrast, water withdrawals for human use exert a sustained reduction in lake inflows and levels. Quantifying the relative contributions of natural variability and human impacts to lake inflows is needed to preserve these lakes. With a credible water balance, causes of lake decline from water diversions or climate variability can be identified and the inflow needed to maintain lake health can be defined. Without a water balance, natural variability can be an excuse for inaction. Here we describe the decline of several of the world's large saline lakes and use a water balance for Great Salt Lake (USA) to demonstrate that consumptive water use rather than long-term climate change has greatly reduced its size. The inflow needed to maintain bird habitat, support lake-related industries and prevent dust storms that threaten human health and agriculture can be identified and provides the information to evaluate the difficult tradeoffs between direct benefits of consumptive water use and ecosystem services provided by saline lakes.
The impact of human activities on our planet's natural systems has been intensifying rapidly in the past several decades, leading to disruption and transformation of most natural systems. These disruptions in the atmosphere, oceans, and across the terrestrial land surface are not only driving species to extinction, they pose serious threats to human health and wellbeing. Characterising and addressing these threats requires a paradigm shift. In a lecture delivered to the Academy of Medical Sciences on Nov 13, 2017, I describe the scale of human impacts on natural systems and the extensive associated health effects across nearly every dimension of human health. I highlight several overarching themes that emerge from planetary health and suggest advances in the way we train, reward, promote, and fund the generation of health scientists who will be tasked with breaking out of their disciplinary silos to address this urgent constellation of health threats. I propose that protecting the health of future generations requires taking better care of Earth's natural systems.
Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today. Diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015—16% of all deaths worldwide—three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence. In the most severely affected countries, pollution-related disease is responsible for more than one death in four.