A child born today will experience a world 4 degrees warmer than the pre-industrial average. This seemingly small variable will have significant impacts on global health outcomes in the future.

To understand the scale and breadth of those outcomes and to offer solutions for countries most affected by climate change, The Lancet medical journal has recently published the 2019 Lancet Countdown. This report presents the findings and provides a collaborative perspective from 35 universities, institutions, and agencies on how climate change will influence human health.

Luis Escobar, assistant professor of disease ecology in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and an affiliate of the Global Change Center housed under Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Sciences Institute, was a contributor to the report.

“The goal of the Lancet Countdown is to have a consortium of universities and institutions tackle a specific problem,” said Escobar, a faculty member in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “We want to demonstrate not only the linkages between climate change and human health, but also provide some guidance about what can be done to limit those impacts.”

Escobar’s research focuses on infectious diseases, a human health challenge that is projected to be significantly impacted by climate change. Escobar said that there is a direct correlation between temperature rise and an increase in infectious disease outbreaks. He noted that this year’s Lancet report was able to take a unique approach to considering that correlation for several diseases.

“In previous studies, we’ve worked to see how climate change is going to impact water-borne diseases going forward,” he said. “This time, we looked to the past. We’ve been studying how environmental conditions have changed over the last two decades and how temperature increase is leading to more adverse outcomes.”

The 2019 Lancet Countdown made five key policy recommendations for countries: the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, a commitment to ending reliance on fossil fuels, investments in infrastructure to support active lifestyles for people, investment in better monitoring of how climate change is impacting health outcomes, and a strengthening of health care systems.

While those solutions represent a global view of the challenges of climate change, Escobar said that it is easy to find local examples of these impacts.

“Virginia is the oyster capital of the Mid-Atlantic region,” he explained. “Oysters filter the water, which makes them potential carriers of water-borne diseases in the food chain. As climate change threatens aquatic ecosystems, there is a risk of an increase in water-borne pathogens that could contaminate oysters, and, in turn, infect people that consume them, which will result in tremendous damage for the oyster industry.”

Escobar said that the Lancet Countdown report reflects the necessity of having a broad vision when it comes to considering the challenges that a warming planet will bring. He also indicated that a goal of the Lancet Countdown is to change the narrative about climate change.

“We should stop talking about whether or not climate change is happening,” he said. “There is overwhelming evidence of climate change and climate change impacts around the world, and it is time to focus our efforts on demanding action from local and federal governments.”

Escobar noted that the Global Change Center plays a crucial role in helping Virginia Tech researchers and students connect local concerns with broader challenges taking place around the world.

“The Global Change Center allows us to develop local research and thinking on a global scale,” he said. “Questions of how climate change can impact the population of salamanders in the Appalachian Mountains, or how rising sea temperatures could affect coastal areas in Virginia can help researchers see the broader picture of climate change. The center, and my department at Virginia Tech, have both been catalysts in helping me position my science on climate change and health in the international discussion.”

— Written by David Fleming

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