Source: BBC Radio Five Live


Date: 23/06/2015

Event: Hugh Montgomery on the climate change health threat: "it's been largely ignored"

Credit: BBC Radio Five Live


    • Adrian Goldberg: BBC Radio 5 Live radio presenter
    • Dr. Hugh Montgomery: Professor of Health, University College London

Adrian Goldberg: Now, the risk to human health posed by climate change is being seriously underestimated, according to a major new report compiled by European and Chinese scientists and published in the Lancet today. They're warning that the threat to human health is so great that it could undermine the last 50 years of gains in developments in global health. Professor Hugh Montgomery is the co-chair of the report. I asked him, a little earlier, to explain the link between climate change and the threat to our health.

Hugh Montgomery: It's a big threat, and it's been largely ignored, as you know - for many, many years all we've heard about is melting ice and tree frogs and polar bears. The effects on health, for us and round the world, come in two groups - there's the direct ones, which are essentially the direct effects of energy gain in our atmosphere, which cause extreme weather, so: floods, storms, severe droughts and high temperatures. And then there's a whole raft of indirect effects, which come from things like changes in disease vectors that carry parasitic diseases, erm, algal blooms in oceans, but also in effects on crop production, starvation, loss of habitation, migration and conflict, all of which play in as well. So it's direct and indirect.

Adrian Goldberg: And you say the threat to human health from climate change is so great that it could undermine the last 50 years of gains in developments in global health. Putting that bluntly, you're suggesting that more people will die younger.

Hugh Montgomery: Absolutely, and we're not talking about small numbers, either. If one's looking at the estimates that have been produced in this piece of research, we're looking at billions of events, so billions of individual people being exposed to - let's just say extreme heat-wave events, on their own, over the next decades. And of course this plays out, whilst we emphasise the climate effects, it's playing out on a pretty stressed world system, as well, with reductions in water supplies and in topsoil, and so forth. And these things are coming together in a, in a - excusing the bad, sort of, pun or analogy - a perfect storm, really.

Adrian Goldberg: What can we do about it?

Hugh Montgomery: Well, that's the good news on this. So the Lancet Commission really took a view to say "Well, what's the nature of the threat?" and it's quite clear the threat is immediate - that's us and our children - and very grave. And the next step forward is "Is there a way of fixing it?" and actually I have to say a little bit to my surprise, when we talked to all the technologists and so forth, they say "Yeah, it's not a problem, we can fix this right now, the technologies are available right now." And then the finance people took a look and we said "Well, can you move the money?" and they said "Yeah, there's no shortage of money - easy to fix that". And actually, therefore, it comes down to just political will. Um -

Adrian Goldberg: So what are - what are the political steps, then, that need to be taken, to avert this apparent catastrophe that you're predicting?

Hugh Montgomery: I think that's a difficult one, because if the political steps were straightforward, people would have made them by now. And I guess the difficulty with international agreements is you're asking upwards of 193 countries, each with a very different agenda and different constraints, all to reach one agreement. The bits we point out in this report are that there are some quick wins they could agree on. The first is: we've got to phase out the use of coal, quickly. And that's partly because coal-burning, in its own right, um, very severely damages human health, just from the particulate pollution it creates. So there's an immediate health win by making that move, as well as a reduction in greenhouse gases. And then what we also need is a straightforward carbon levy, um, in the countries that release the greenhouse gases, and we're suggesting that they keep that money - it's a levy that goes on the emissions, they get to keep that money and redistribute it. So actually that nation doesn't become poorer - they can spend that money on reducing taxes, for instance, or increasing jobs or - in our country we might, for instance, reduce VAT. Or you could put that money into increasingly low-carbon production of energy. So countries don't get poorer by doing that, and we think that we should definitely have that sort of carbon levy, internationally.

Adrian Goldberg: And you seem to be accepting man-made climate change as a fact, but you will know that there are climate sceptics out there, people who say that we've been through periods of immense climate change in our history, eons before we burned fossil fuels.

Hugh Montgomery: Yeah, well of course that's true, the climate has changed through eons, and we understand the nature of that. And essentially, those changes are down to changes in the Earth's orbit, whether it's more circular or elliptical round the sun, changes in the tilt of the Earth, change in the rotation of that axis, something called "axis precession", and then changes on short-term forcings like sunspots. And it's those big, long-term geological sort of time-scale cycles that caused 100,000-year oscillations between, sort of, ice ages and warmer periods. But this is quite different. We know that greenhouse gases do warm the planet, that's straightforward physics. And indeed, if we didn't have those greenhouse gases, there wouldn't be life on Earth - the temperature of the globe would be at least 30 degrees colder. But we've been adding to those greenhouse gases at a enormous rate since the mid-1800s, and increasingly so, since. And it's a simple fact of physics that that will cause retained energy in our atmospheric system. And actually, whilst there's much talk about there being a debate about this, in the scientific community there just isn't. There are no, kind of, of all the scientists whom I know, that any will believe at all that climate change is not, in this circumstance, due to humans producing greenhouse gases. The debate now is what we do about it. And the good news is it appears we can do something about it quite readily.

Adrian Goldberg: Is this a clever way to change the narrative on climate change? Historically, there have been appeals to protect the environment, which however worthy, is rather a vague appeal. This is an appeal to listeners to save their own lives and save the lives of their children, to see this not as an environmental issue but as a public health issue.

Hugh Montgomery: Essentially, as a doctor and as a parent, those are entirely my drivers. I'm very fond of the idea of the natural world - I like the idea that it's there. But the thing that really would motivate me is the health of the people I care for, and those might be patients but they also are the ones I love, like my own children. So this isn't really a question of some devious way of changing a story for some political end, it's just saying we've focussed for too long on pictures of melting icebergs, without actually realising what this sort of magnitude in rate of change, in atmospheric and oceanic temperatures, means to us, as human beings. And that is a grave threat.

It is avoidable - that's the good news. And indeed we go into some evidence in this report, which is helpful, I think, because it just so happens that a lot of the things we can do to reduce climate change also happen to be very healthy in their own right. So if we manage to cut down a bit on red meat consumption and animal consumption, that's fewer cows belching methane out of their ruminant's stomachs, that's less greenhouse gases but also means less bowel cancer for us blokes, it means less coronary disease and strokes and so forth. And more active transport means less greenhouse gases belched out of cars, it also means less coronary disease, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, and so forth. And those health economic gains, even if there were no such thing as climate change, turn out to be worth many tens of billions in savings in our health service, and that's a good thing. We have a struggling health service - I'm at the sharp end of it, most days. This is a quick way for producing some very rapid economic gains, as well as health gains.

Adrian Goldberg: And that's Professor Hugh Montgomery. I'm Adrian Goldberg, I'll be back again tomorrow night at 10:30.