Climate change is hurting our health: 3 stories you may have missed

© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen

Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. More than 230 medical journals: Climate crisis is “greatest threat to global public health” 

Stop global warming or face “catastrophic harm” to human health, journal editors warn in an urgent call for action.

The story: In an unprecedented joint editorial, the world’s leading medical journals warned that global warming is increasingly harmful to human health and leading to a variety of ailments – from cardiovascular and pulmonary illness to dermatological disease, Daniel Politi reported for Slate. 

“The greatest threat to global public health is the continued failure of world leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) and to restore nature,” editors of the Lancet, the British Medical Journal and others wrote in their editorial. They added that heat-related deaths among people age 65 and older have risen by more than 50 percent over the past 20 years.

The big picture: While some countries are committing to ambitious climate goals, transformational changes are needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to prevent climate catastrophe, scientists say.

“Every fraction of a degree hotter endangers our health and future,” World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement ahead of the joint editorial. “The risks posed by climate change could dwarf those of any single disease. We will end the COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s no vaccine for the climate crisis.”

Read more here.

Analysis points to “huge disconnect” between global climate goals and the fossil fuel industry’s expansion plans.

The story: A new study finds that the majority of fossil fuel reserves — 90 percent of coal and nearly 60 percent of oil and gas — must remain in the ground to give the world even half a chance of avoiding the most dangerous impacts of climate change, Damian Carrington reported for The Guardian.

“We estimate that oil and gas production must decline globally by 3 percent each year until 2050,” the researchers wrote in their study. “This implies that most regions must reach peak production now or during the next decade, rendering many operational and planned fossil fuel projects unviable.”

The big picture: Scientists hope their analysis will “inspire the political will” to move away from a reliance on fossil fuels. A recently announced alliance led by Costa Rica and Denmark that aims to phase out fossil fuel extraction and halt permits for new exploration provides a hopeful sign.

“We must keep fossil fuels in the ground. A safe future has no space for any new fossil fuel extraction,” Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat and the former UN climate chief, told the Guardian. “The shift to clean energy must be accelerated in order to maintain human activity now and protect human well-being tomorrow.”

Read more here.

Scientists are surprised by how much carbon Africa’s highland forests store — and what could be at risk if they’re lost.

The story: When it comes to storing carbon, many think of the Amazon rainforest as a climate superstar — but there’s an unsung hero: Africa’s tropical mountain forests. New research spanning 44 sites across a dozen African countries — from Guinea to Ethiopia — shows the continent’s montane forests store about 70 percent more carbon on average than montane forests in other tropical areas, Carly Cassella wrote for ScienceAlert.

“While we know what makes African forests special, we don't yet know why they are different,” lead author Aida Cuni-Sanchez explained. “It is possible that in Africa, the presence of large herbivores such as elephants plays an important role in mountain forest ecology, as these large animals disperse seeds and nutrients, and eat small trees creating space for others to grow larger, but this requires further investigation."

The big picture: Old-growth forests that are most effective at storing carbon are often the most vulnerable to logging, mining and agriculture. “Quantifying carbon stocks in [Africa’s montane forest] ecosystems is critical for estimating national carbon losses from deforestation and forest degradation,” researchers wrote. 

“Since the turn of the century, at least 800,000 hectares (1.9 million acres) of mountain forest have been lost, mostly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia,” Cassella wrote. “According to the calculations of researchers, that's equivalent to emitting over 450 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” 

Read more here.

News spotlight

Brazil’s Supreme Court is weighing a landmark case that could affect hundreds of Indigenous land claims — and impact conservation efforts in the Amazon. The case centers on the Xokleng Indigenous peoples, who were pushed from their ancestral lands more than a century ago. The ruling is expected to set a precedent for whether courts can deny land claims for Indigenous communities whose territories were appropriated before 1988, when Brazil’s constitution was ratified. 

Indigenous communities are custodians of more than a quarter of Earth’s land and seas and protect 80 percent of global biodiversity. Their lands show less deforestation and pollution, and more well-managed natural resources. In the Amazon alone, nearly half of intact forests are located within Indigenous territories — which are seen as a bulwark against deforestation as mining, logging and agriculture encroach deeper into the rainforest.


Vanessa Bauza is the editorial director at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: Skyline of Qatar (© Conservation International/Molly Bergen)