Failing to act on climate change will “cause great suffering,” doctors warn

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 01 April 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g2512
  1. Matthew Limb
  1. 1London

The world is largely ill prepared for the future risks of a changing climate that will affect everyone on the planet, according to a major scientific review.

A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that climate change was already having a “substantial” and “wide-ranging” effect on all continents and across all oceans.1 But the report warned that continuing global warming would pose a bigger risk of floods, food shortages, threats to human health, people’s livelihoods, and security unless carbon emissions were reduced.

“Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe and pervasive impacts that may be surprising or irreversible,” it said.

The UN panel’s working group II report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, was published on 31 March and was approved by more than 100 governments.

On the eve of its publication more than 60 leading UK physicians and medical scientists, including Richard Thompson, president of the Royal College of Physicians, and the BMJ’s editor in chief, Fiona Godlee, wrote to the Times newspaper saying plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions should be speeded up.2 “Failing to act decisively and quickly will inevitably cause great suffering and have potentially catastrophic consequences,” said the letter, published on 29 March.

The working group II report, produced by several hundred scientists and expert reviewers, forms part of the UN climate change panel’s fifth assessment report, which is due to be completed later this year. It has analysed a greater volume of evidence than previous reports and assesses how impacts and risks related to climate change can be mitigated and reduced.

The report said that human interference with the climate system “is occurring and the climate change poses risks for human and natural systems.” In many regions, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice were altering hydrological systems, affecting the quality and quantity of water resources.

Many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops showed that negative impacts of climate change on crop yields had been more common than positive impacts, it said.

According to a summary document for policy makers, the worldwide burden of human ill health from climate change is “relatively small compared with effects of other stressors and is not well quantified.” However, it said that there had been increased heat related mortality and decreased cold related mortality in some regions as a result of warming (medium confidence). Local changes in temperature and rainfall had altered the distribution of some waterborne illnesses and disease vectors (medium confidence), the summary said.

The report’s authors said that people who were marginalised, whether socially, economically, culturally, politically, or institutionally, were especially vulnerable to climate change.

Chris Field, a co-chair of the working group, said that the risks of serious consequences from climate change could be reduced with “ambitious investments in mitigation” or adaptation measures. But, he said, “with high levels of warming that result from continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions, risks will be challenging to manage, and even serious, sustained investments in adaptation will face limits.”

Rajendra Pachauri, who chairs the IPCC, told a news conference in Yokohama, Japan, on 30 March, “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.”

Mark Walport, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme on 31 March that the report’s findings “couldn’t be starker.”

“The implications for the UK are that in low lying regions of the country there’s much more risk of flooding, there’s likely to be increased intensity of rainfall, there will be economic losses,” he said.


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g2512


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