Summer’s End

What steps can we take to counteract the negative impact of climate change on human health? Banner image: Shutterstock/F-Focus by Mati Kose
Summer’s End

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Several times this week I’ve been surprised to see a flock of swallows careering down my street. It’s late in the year for them to still be here, and I wonder which group I see will be the last.

Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events so, as many phenological events are closely tied to temperature, changes in timing reflect changes in the climate. A rich history of phenological records, often collected by amateur nature enthusiasts, provide probably the longest biological records we have.

Contrast this, then, with the couple of decades or so over which the health impacts from climate change have been studied. For the last five years, the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Action has monitored a series of indicators to track the impact of climate change on health, as well as the health benefits of taking action on climate change.

The Lancet Countdown is an international, multi-disciplinary collaboration that monitors the links between public health and climate change. It brings together over 120 leading experts—climate scientists, engineers, energy specialists, economists, political scientists, public health professionals and doctors—from academic institutions and United Nations (UN) agencies across the globe.

Read more on the Forum NetworkOvercoming the climate emergency is our chance to re-imagine the world, by Jack Garton, Member, OECD Youthwise

Each year, the Lancet Countdown publishes an annual assessment of the state of climate change and human health, seeking to provide decision-makers with access to high-quality, evidence-based policy guidance. Its findings are published in The Lancet medical journal, this year ahead of COP 26, the UN climate change negotiations in Glasgow. The data in each report illustrates how climate change is affecting the health of people around the world, making clear the consequences of delayed climate action and the health benefits of a robust, rapid response.

Five working groups cover key themes:

  • The health impacts, exposures, and vulnerabilities of climate change
  • Adaptation, planning and resilience for health
  • Mitigation actions and their health co-benefits
  • Economic and financial aspects of the interaction between climate change and health
  • Public and political engagement in climate change and health

The 2019 Lancet Countdown report emphasised that no child born today will escape a climate changed world. The five reports in the series show that years of health gains in children’s health are being put at risk by climate change, threatening present and future generations. Globally climate change undermines food and water security, putting health and sanitation services at risk and increasing child exposure to infectious diseases and extreme events.[i]

Read more on the Forum Network: From COVID to Climate: This convergence of crises calls for a convergence of solutions, by Helen Mountford, Vice President for Climate & Economics, World Resources Institute

In September the Youth Summit taking place during the Pre-COP meeting in Milan will hear children and young people’s concerns about climate change as well as their hopes and dreams for a better world. A world where children can flourish and grow up in healthier cities, towns, and communities; where they can breathe clean air, enjoy green spaces to play and develop, and access better job and training opportunities.

Key to this is the recent launch of new air quality standards from the WHO. While these standards are too late to help Ella Kissi-Debra, and her family, these are a vital resource for all the children around the world currently suffering from respiratory conditions such as asthma, made worse by air pollution from petrol, diesel and wildfire smoke in a warmer world.

Read more on the Forum Network: How addressing the link between climate change, air quality and public health may help us all breathe easier, by Paulette Frank, Worldwide Vice President, Environmental Health, Safety & Sustainability, Johnson & Johnson

If children had been as vulnerable to COVID-19 as older people and people living with underlying health conditions, the impact of death and disease would have broken humanity; our spirit, if not our populations. In the Oscar Wilde story, the Happy Prince, the prince asks the swallow to delay his return to Egypt and stay to help the poor of the village. The swallow stays too long and, as winter comes, dies as a result of his selfless deeds.

As I watched the swallows flitting low over water to drink and feed, I thought about this story of my favourite bird, the barn swallow, that heralds the northern summer. Memories stirred too of its cousin, the welcome swallow, darting round Uluru and nesting in the eves of a Sydney café by Bronte beach. My mind had wandered; I re-focused on the sky but the swallows were gone.

Will I be here to see them return next year? Will they make it back? Covid has reminded us all that tomorrow isn’t promised, and we now also know that we face two existential crises: climate change and biodiversity loss. We must act this decade or, like the prince’s swallow, we risk leaving the things we must do until too late to save ourselves.

The time has come for focus and priorities: to protect our atmosphere and our planet; to channel all our energies to decarbonising our economies through a just and rapid transition; to transition to renewable energy and sustainable use of resources; to support sustainable agriculture and healthier diets while protecting the world’s rich and valuable habitats and species.

If we fail, will tomorrow’s children still marvel at the swallow’s journey across borders and oceans, mountain ranges and deserts? We may have bigger problems to dwell on than summer’s end.

[i] Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, Monitoring climate change and child health: the case for putting children in all policies. (Forthcoming: will be published in a November special issue on climate change and health as open access.)

Learn more about the OECD's application of the well-being lens to climate change policy on our website

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Green Recovery  Health  Child Well-being Intergenerational Solidarity 

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Go to the profile of Elizabeth Villagomez
about 2 years ago

Thank you, wonderful piece