Not What the Doctor Ordered: Rapid Environmental Change Threatens the Foundations of Human Health

Washington, D.C.-Changes to the Earth's land cover, climate, and ecosystems are endangering the health of hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of people worldwide and now represent the greatest public health challenge of the 21st century. The scale of these global changes is rapidly undermining human life-support systems and threatening the core foundations of healthy communities around the globe: access to adequate food, clean air, safe drinking water, and secure homes.

These are the findings of the new report, Global Environmental Change: The Threat to Human Health, published today by the Worldwatch Institute and the United Nations Foundation. The report notes that, as a result of rapid changes to the climate and in land use, we are already seeing alterations in the distribution of malaria, schistosomiasis, and other infectious diseases in many regions. It concludes that poor populations, mainly in developing countries, are the most vulnerable to these environmental changes, even though they are the least responsible for contributing to them.

"It is increasingly apparent that the breadth and depth of the changes we are wreaking on the environment are imperiling not only many of the other species with which we share the ecological stage, but the health and wellbeing of our own species as well," writes the report's author, Dr. Samuel S. Myers, M.D., M.P.H., an instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Research Associate at the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

The report outlines a series of public health threats-food and water scarcity, altered distribution of infectious diseases, increased air pollution, natural disasters, and population displacement-that collectively threaten large segments of the human population. But most of the death and disability from these threats is fundamentally preventable, Dr. Myers writes, if the political will can be mobilized to take strong, concerted action. The report outlines the need for national-level risk assessments to identify the greatest threats in different regions, as well as unprecedented technical and financial assistance from the international community to help developing countries adapt to the health impacts of accelerating environmental change.

Ultimately, the report argues, we will need to find new ways to generate economic growth that do not cause serious ecological deterioration, or the progress that has been made toward global health, nutrition, and poverty alleviation will be undone. "At present, all of the major types of human caused environmental change-climate change, changes in land use and cover, and ecosystem service degradation-are accelerating," Myers says. "To reduce the avoidable human suffering that will result, we must redouble our efforts to slow the pace of environmental change, reduce the rate of human population growth, and reduce the vulnerabilities of those in harm's way."

In her preface to the report, Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and Special Envoy on Climate Change to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, describes the report as "a call to action." She writes that, "The knowledge that we can make a difference means that we have a large responsibility to act. By fighting ignorance, inaction, and inequity, we can create the conditions under which health threats can be averted. Most importantly, we must take targeted collective action to reduce the vulnerability of the poorest people on the planet to threats they played little role in generating."

The United Nations Foundation, of which Gro Harlem Brundtland is a board member, supported this report. The UN Foundation connects people, resources, and ideas to solve the world's global problems.