Climate change impacts human health

2017’s Academy of Medical Sciences and The Lancet International Health Lecture was delivered by Dr Samuel Myers of the Planetary Health Alliance, Harvard. In this lecture, he highlighted various ways in which anthropogenic climate change and other human activities negatively affect not only the natural environment, but also human health.

Since the mid 20th century, CO2 emissions and the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources like fresh water, fisheries and tropical forests have risen faster than ever before. This has led to well-documented damage to many ecosystems, as well as to changes in global climate systems. Less immediately obvious, however, is the damage being done to human health, both mental and physical.

Dr Myers gave several examples of global climate change and other human activities negatively impacting on health, including the decrease in nutrients such as protein, iron and zinc in crop plants grown under elevated CO2[1], use of fertilisers increasing rates of malaria [2], and pollution causing rises in non-communicable diseases like lung cancer [3].

Many of these issues were not foreseen, and Dr Myers emphasised that there are likely to be many more ‘surprises’ that arise over the coming years. Including human health impacts in assessments of activities considered to be good for economic growth could help governments to predict and avoid these surprises. He gave the example that fires used to clear land for palm oil and timber in south east Asia caused 100,000 deaths in 2015 alone, a figure that offset the supposed economic gains from forest clearance.[4]

In order to help solve these issues, Dr Myers recommended that the medical and environmental professions should work more closely together to investigate and combat planetary health issues. He also urged universities and government bodies to recognise planetary health as an important emerging research area in its own right, and one that is essential to consider when mitigating the effects of climate change. Finally, Dr Myers called for a wider appreciation of the Earth’s unique nature and vulnerability, and a greater feeling of responsibility and stewardship over our home planet.

The full text of the lecture can be found here.

Update 29/11/2017: A video of the lecture is now online here.



[1] Myers, SS, Zanobetti, A, Kloog, I et al. Increasing CO2 threatens human nutrition. Nature. 2014; 510: 139–142

[2] Rejmankova, E, Grieco, J, Achee, N et al. Freshwater community interactions and malaria. in: SK Collinge, C Ray (Eds.) Disease ecology. Oxford University Press, Oxford; 2006: 90–104

[3] Landrigan, PJ, Fuller, R, Acosta, NJR et al. The Lancet Commission on pollution and health. (published online Oct 19.)Lancet. 2017;

[4] Koplitz, S, Mickley, L, Marlier, M et al. Public health impacts of the severe haze in Equatorial Asia in September–October 2015: demonstration of a new framework for informing fire management strategies to reduce downwind smoke exposure. Environ Res Lett. 2016; 11: 1–10