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Humanity's unhealthy future

What's the true cost of climate change? It should be measured in loss of lives and health.

The heat wave that's taken the lives of hundreds in Pakistan this week certainly underscored the human cost of climate change. In Karachi, where temperatures have reached as high as 113 degrees, it's not difficult to see the link between increased carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and dramatically higher temperatures — not only resulting in dangerous heat waves but other devastating weather events from tornadoes to tsunamis.

But while such tragedy is obvious, the impact of climate change on human health is really much worse than high temperatures, droughts or more frequent storms, as a team of experts report in the medical journal The Lancet this week. According to findings released Tuesday, it also means an increased risk of disease, much greater food insecurity, worsening air pollution and many other factors that collectively pose a "catastrophic risk" to human health.

How catastrophic? According to the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate, the threat is so great that it may undermine the last 50 years of progress in human health. In other words, as much as research, technology and investment in public infrastructure and medical treatment have improved health and lengthened average life spans around the world over the last half-century, climate change may have a counter-effect just as significant.

That's an important finding, advocates say, because it personalizes the threat of climate change and takes it from the distant and theoretical to the here and now. Instead of worrying about collapsing arctic ice shelves, melting glaciers or a loss of polar bear habitat, the Lancet group underscores this as a public health problem — the shortening of human lives. And it comes on the heels of the recent encyclical by Pope Francis that similarly warned of the environmental consequences of climate change, particularly to the poorest people among us.

The threat comes not just from unusual weather but in changing infectious disease patterns (broadening the range of certain disease-carrying insects, for example), in involuntary migration (perhaps spurred by flooding or the collapse of agriculture) and the resulting political upheaval and armed conflicts in countries devastated by global warming. The continued burning of fossil fuels is also directly linked to increased incidence of coronary heart disease, stroke, asthma and respiratory illness, all of which can be life-shortening.

These are not theoretical problems, but are already taking place around the world as assuredly as Pakistan's heat wave. And the solutions lie in making the necessary adaptations — facilitating migration, for instance, or providing for clean water and sanitation in the most vulnerable countries — as well as in addressing the underlying causes of climate change. The report specifically cites the benefits of eliminating the estimated 2,200 coal-fired power plants that are either under construction now or planned for construction around the world.

Critics of climate change like to make the claim that abandoning "cheaper" energy sources can be just as ruinous, but that's often a case of bad accounting. If saving a $100 a month on electricity shortens one's life by 10 years, what kind of bargain is that? And while the math doesn't work quite that neatly, it does on the macro level. As one commission member noted, climate change amounts to a "medical emergency." The response by the international community — a painfully slow combination of debate and aspiration, like having an annual medical conference instead of pursuing actual treatment or therapy — is hardly what an "emergency" situation requires.

Yet one can't help but hope the pope's recent comments have at least changed the tone and opened some minds that might have been closed previously. When the science is so well established that even the Catholic Church must recognize its legitimacy — and the moral ramifications of continued dithering over climate change are also quite clear to the pontiff — then perhaps the world is about to turn a corner. Ultimately, what's needed is to tap man's inherent instinct for self-preservation. Survival requires that humanity turn away from its bad habits — especially from pumping more greenhouse gases into the air — and act in its own long-term interests.

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