The view from Germany: Climate change as a lethal risk

Global warming is already a manifest risk to health. The 2023 Report of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change (again) shows dramatic developments.

Lancet Report: alarming findings on climate and health

Global warming (so far standing at 1.14 degrees Celcius more than pre-industrial age averages) is threatening the health, lives and prosperity of people worldwide. It now causes a third of heat-related deaths. In the period from 2018 to 2022, people suffered from heat-related health problems on an average of 86 days a year. In the period between 2013 and 2022, mortality caused by high temperatures increased by 85%. This alarming data is provided by the 8th "2023 Report of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change", which has just been published. This report, written by 114 scientists and employees of UN organisations, measures 47 indicators on the connection between climate change and health, including the impact on the prosperity of the world's population.

In 2022, 26.4% of people in the countries covered by the report worked outdoors and unprotected from the respective weather conditions. The loss of working hours due to heat amounted to 490 billion work hours, an increase of 42% since 1991. According to co-author Dr Jan Minx, Professor of Climate Change and Public Policy at the University of Leeds (UK), the report puts the resulting loss of income at 863 billion US$ (around 780 billion euros). Increasing periods of heat and drought have also led to an increase in the number of people with food insecurity and the threat of famine by 127 million in 2021 compared to the period between 1981 and 2010. Children and the inhabitants of low- and middle-income countries are disproportionately affected.

(Still) colossal subsidies for fossil fuels

In a two-degree Celsius increase scenario, which cannot be ruled out in view of ongoing trends, the number of heat-related deaths would increase by a further 370%, the loss of potential jobs would rise by a further 50% and an additional 525 million people would be threatened by hunger. At the same time, the risk of a further spread of dengue fever would also increase by 37%.

There has also been some minor progress. For example, the number of deaths caused by fossil fuels fell from 1.4 to 1.2 million between 2005 and 2020. Nevertheless, a turning point in the use of fossil fuels, especially coal, has not yet been reached. 68 out of 87 countries surveyed subsidise the production of coal with a total of around 300 billion US$ annually.

The team of authors has developed a total of eleven priority options for action. These include a health-oriented transformation of energy production through consistent decarbonisation, the conversion of nutrition and food production to environmentally friendly and healthy products, and the restructuring of healthcare systems with the aim of avoiding emissions and achieving climate resilience. The immediate conditions of the world population's living environments must also be geared towards this.

The view from Germany: medical professionals are aware

According to the President of the German Medical Association, Dr Klaus Reinhardt, the medical profession in Germany has been systematically addressing climate- and environment-related health risks since 2018. These include the spread of dengue and West Nile fever as well as Lyme disease, new tick variants that are also spreading in the northern European regions, and more aggressive and longer-lasting pollen counts with an increasing risk of allergies. All areas of the healthcare system are expected to face increasing burdens as a result. According to Dr Reinhardt, practices, clinics and professional medical organisations have recognised this challenge. One of the consequences was the first National Heat Action Day this year. The measures taken so far are far from sufficient. Against the backdrop of the problems for loan financing caused by the judgement of the German Federal Constitutional Court, Dr Reinhardt warned that climate and health risks should be understood as a "national emergency". 

Since this year, the topic of "heat and health" has also been recognised as a task of the Federal Ministry of Health, according to Dr Ute Teichert, head of the department responsible for public health at the ministry. Following the example of France, the aim is to develop and implement a heat action plan. In the meantime, the Robert Koch Institute has presented a status report on climate-related health risks. The challenge is also being addressed by the Federal Institute for Prevention and Education in Medicine, which is about to be established.

Still a long way ahead for an integral health policy

In fact, climate-related health protection is not even in its infancy. In contrast to the USA, for example, where water dispensers are installed throughout cities, there is almost no way of getting drinking water in German public spaces. Advice for the elderly and chronically ill on how to protect themselves during hot spells is inadequate and does not correspond to the real conditions in the mini-apartments of residential silos in economically-deprived neighbourhoods.

The basic rules of modern urban planning are still being thoroughly disregarded: a prominent example in Berlin is an area developed in recent years at Ostbahnhof and along the East Side Gallery with bleak tower blocks devoid of any greenery and criss-crossed by a busy arterial road. And the several square kilometre site of the former Tempelhof airport close to the city centre is an ecologically useless, largely sealed wasteland, arguably according to the will of Berliners.