Mumbai: Indian children who were under the age of one between the years 2013 and 2022 experienced 43% more heatwave days annually as compared to children in the same age group during 1986-2005. Similarly, adults over the age of 65 saw a 216% increase across the same timeframe. As the global climate conference under way in Dubai is set to observe a Health Day for the first time to discuss impacts of climate change on health, the effects are already visible and starkly so.

In 2023, the world experienced the hottest global temperatures in over 100,000 years, and heat records were broken on every continent. The year is on track to be the warmest year on record. Heat-related deaths in people aged over 65 increased by 85% globally in 2013-2022 compared to 1991-2000, substantially above the 38% increase expected had temperatures not changed.

In fact, a new Call to Action by the World Health Organization (WHO) says that harm due to climate catastrophes can begin even in the womb, leading to pregnancy-related complications, preterm birth, low birthweight and stillbirth. For children, consequences can last a lifetime, affecting the development of their bodies and brains as they grow.

Global leaders have convened in Dubai for the 28th annual climate conference, known as the Conference of Parties (COP28), and millions of health professionals from around the world have already written an open letter to them to accelerate the phase-out of fossil fuels, deliver on $100 billion in climate finance and spend it on saving lives and improving health of the most vulnerable. But completely phasing out all fossil fuels remains the most contentious issue at these conferences for the past few years.

The India numbers

Even as winter is just setting in in many parts of India, one might recall that this year saw its hottest February and driest August in 122 years.

In just the first nine months of this year, India has witnessed an extreme weather disaster almost every day of the first nine months--from heat and cold waves, cyclones and lightning to heavy rain, floods and landslides. These disasters have claimed 2,923 human lives, impacted 1.84 million hectare of crop area, destroyed over 80,000 houses and killed more than 92,000 livestock, a new report by Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment showed. Following a rainfall deficit, states like Maharashtra have already declared drought in several districts. But is 2023 just an anomaly? No, because the impact of climate change on the increase in the frequency and intensity of disasters like these is well established now.

A look at the big picture shows that apart from disasters that need immediate attention, slow onset events such as drought are also on the rise. From 2013-2022, an average of 29% of India’s land area experienced over three months of extreme drought per year. The amount of land experiencing at least one month of extreme drought per year has increased 138% from 1951-1960 to 2013-2022.

Each of these extreme weather events have a direct effect on people’s lives and health. For example, exposure to high temperatures threatens people’s lives, health, and wellbeing, leading to heat-related disease, deaths and increasing healthcare demand during heatwave episodes. Older people, socio-economically deprived communities, very young children, pregnant women, and those with underlying health problems are particularly at risk.

Pregnant women are one of the groups most susceptible to extreme temperatures, which is caused by climate change. “Preterm births are linked to heat stress. Heat increases the chances of infection, which causes early labour. In particular, dehydration due to heat can cause urinary tract infections,” said Kiran Coelho, a gynaecologist at Lilavati hospital in Mumbai.

At more than 250,000, India has the highest number of preterm births in the world, according to a WHO report. Climate change is one of the causes of preterm birth, which is the leading cause of death among children under the age of five, as per the WHO.

Warmer temperatures exacerbate the risk of preterm births in low and low-middle income countries, as per this April 2017 paper by researchers from Kaiser Permanente (a care provider consortium) and the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Are other countries doing better?

It is not just India which is suffering from the worst health impacts of climate change. World over, people experienced 86 days of health-threatening high temperatures on average in 2022, over 60% of which were more than twice as likely to occur because of man-made climate change. Yearly heat-related deaths are projected to increase by 370% by mid-century,

More frequent heatwaves and droughts were responsible for 127 million more people experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity in 122 countries in 2021, than annually between 1981 and 2010.

Similarly, changing weather patterns are accelerating the spread of life-threatening infectious diseases. For example, warmer seas have increased the area of the world’s coastline suitable for the spread of Vibrio bacteria that can cause illness and death in humans, putting a record 1.4 billion people at risk of diarrhoeal disease, severe wound infections, and sepsis.

It is keeping these facts in mind that a day dedicated to health is to be observed on December 3 to drive home the point that the climate crisis is, unequivocally, a health crisis. On this day, world leaders will see the announcement of new health-climate finance and discuss proactive risk management for disasters, clean air solutions, water security, mental health and many more subjects.

“Leaders must deliver in Dubai, providing the strong health outcomes their peoples expect and their economies urgently need. We must change the conversation and demonstrate the massive benefits of bolder climate action on our health and well-being,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General stated earlier this week.

Health professionals from across the world have also written an open letter to COP28 President Sultan Al-Jaber.

“For COP28 to truly be a ‘health COP’, it must address the root cause of the climate crisis: the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels including coal, oil and gas. We call on the COP28 Presidency and the leaders of all countries to commit to an accelerated, just and equitable phase-out of fossil fuels as the decisive path to health for all. Ending our dangerous dependency on fossil fuels will improve the health prospects of future generations and will save lives,” the letter demanded.

In fact, there is evidence that taking steps in the right direction will have immediate positive impacts.

A new analysis quantified health benefits from different climate mitigation actions and the resulting reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. They estimated that in India, at least 150 life years were gained per 100,000 population per year by decarbonising electricity generation--that is, by generating electricity through renewables instead of coal. Switching to clean cookstoves in India also resulted in large health benefits from reduced household air pollution, estimated at around 1,250 life years gained per 100,000 population per year.

(Nushaiba Iqbal, reporter and analyst at IndiaSpend, contributed to this report.)

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