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The Health Costs of Environmental Change

Summary:
OXFORD – In recent years, the world has become increasingly preoccupied with the catastrophic potential of global warming and other human-induced environmental changes, and rightly so. But one of the most serious risks has been all but ignored: the threat to human health. To be sure, concerns about what a rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels could mean for the planet are entirely justified. And many are understandably perturbed that the world’s poorest suffer disproportionately, while the United States, the planet’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, seems to be shirking its responsibilities. But the health implications of human-induced environmental change are largely being overlooked, while future generations’ quality of life is being

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OXFORD – In recent years, the world has become increasingly preoccupied with the catastrophic potential of global warming and other human-induced environmental changes, and rightly so. But one of the most serious risks has been all but ignored: the threat to human health.

To be sure, concerns about what a rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels could mean for the planet are entirely justified. And many are understandably perturbed that the world’s poorest suffer disproportionately, while the United States, the planet’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, seems to be shirking its responsibilities.

But the health implications of human-induced environmental change are largely being overlooked, while future generations’ quality of life is being mortgaged for economic gain. Nowhere are these implications more visible than in the emerging markets of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe.

Rapid growth and rising incomes have led to unprecedented improvements in nutrition, education, and social mobility. Over the last 35 years, countries such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey have all made extraordinary gains in human development.

But this progress has often been pursued with little regard for the stability of natural systems. The contamination of roughly half of the world’s fresh water supply, the disappearance of more than 1.4 million square miles (2.3 million square kilometers) of forests since 2000, solid waste mismanagement, and widespread species loss, habitat destruction, and overfishing are destroying the very resources we need to survive.

Humans are changing the natural environment so dramatically, and to our own detriment, that scientists believe we have entered a new geologic epoch – the “Anthropocene” – which began around 1950 and is characterized by unprecedented planetary pollution.

The Emerging Markets Symposium at the University of Oxford’s Green Templeton College recently concluded that these changes have serious implications for human health, especially in developing economies. Up to a quarter of the world’s disease burden is associated with human-caused environmental factors, the symposium found. Children under five years old are at the greatest risk of suffering a disease caused by poor environmental stewardship.

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