THE DETAILS: The report was produced by a yearlong multidisciplinary commission formed by the Lancet and University College London; it summarizes a mind-boggling amount of data and states that, thanks to emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, global temperature will likely rise more than 2 degrees in the coming decades. This will increase the level of climate disruption through the 21st century, possibly leading to “abrupt, severe, and irreversible changes in climate.” The authors call climate change the biggest health threat we will face this century, and one that according to the latest research will result in mass migration, food and clean water shortages, and a sharp rise in cases of infectious disease.
The authors, who examined and analyzed previous peer-reviewed research, found that even the most conservative estimates of climate change are “profoundly disturbing and demand action.” The authors recommend health-care workers in areas previously unaffected prepare to deal with malaria, dengue fever, and parasitic diseases like Lyme disease, and they urge a global coalition to set up a meeting within the next 24 months to investigate how to manage and monitor these and other health threats that will be brought on because of global warming.
WHAT IT MEANS: Climate change is happening, and we need to do what we can to cut emissions now, while we prepare and adapt for the changes to come. This can seem like an overwhelming task. But here are three key changes you can start with that will help put the brakes on global warming AND benefit your health:
• Cut back on meat, especially red meat. Farmers use about three-quarters of the world’s water supply. Droughts and extreme weather brought on by climate change will make water scarcer, which puts pressure on our food supply, according to the report. American or European diets require about 5,000 liters of water per person every day; African or Asian vegetarian diets use about 2,000 liters per person a day. Moving to a less meat-centric meal plan will help save an increasingly scarce resource. And it will help your health: Recent research found that those who eat more red meat and any processed meats don’t live as long as those who don’t. If you are reluctant to give up meat altogether, try designating at least one day a week as a “meatless” day. When you do buy red meat, buy grass-fed beef from a local farmer who doesn’t use hormones. Bonus: Lower meat production reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released by cows. (Yes, they release it in exactly the way you think they do.)
• Buy organic. The report calls for more biosequestration (using natural means to store carbon in the soil) through reforestation and improved agricultural practices. Organic farming methods don’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers, avoiding the associated carbon emissions. And side-by-side trials of chemical and organic farming techniques done at the Rodale Institute, show that organic crops add carbon to the soil. Adding more fruit and vegetables to your diet can help your health in all sorts of ways. Many organic fruits and vegetables are also higher in antioxidants and other healthy nutrients than chemically grown counterparts, and they’re not contaminated with pesticides.
• Be active. Automobiles, coal-generated electric power, and other sources of greenhouse gases are in large part responsible for the improved quality of life for many in the Western world in the last century, the report notes. Most of us aren’t about to give up car travel, refrigeration, or high-speed Internet access. But we can reduce what the report calls “luxury emissions” by using public transportation and by choosing fuel-efficient vehicles and energy-efficient products. Beyond that, by choosing to operate under your own power when you can—walk or bike instead of drive, use a rake instead of a leaf blower, throw a real ball around instead of playing a video game—you reduce carbon emissions and give your body some of the exercise that most of us don’t get enough of.