Top docs’ pre­scrip­tion for fever­ish planet: Cut coal


Some top in­ter­na­tional doc­tors and public health ex­perts have is­sued an ur­gent pre­scrip­tion for a fever­ish planet Earth: Get off coal as soon as pos­si­ble.

Sub­sti­tut­ing cleaner energy world­wide for coal will re­duce air pol­lu­tion and give Earth a bet­ter chance at avoid­ing dan­ger­ous cli­mate change, rec­om­mended a global health com­mis­sion or­ga­nized by the pres­ti­gious Bri­tish med­i­cal jour­nal Lancet. The panel said hun­dreds of thou­sands of lives each year are at stake and global warm­ing “threat­ens to un­der­mine the last half cen­tury of gains in de­vel­op­ment and global health.”

It’s like a cig­a­rette smoker with lung prob­lems: Doc­tors can treat the dis­ease, but the first thing that has to be done is to get the pa­tient to stop smok­ing, or in this case get off coal in the next five years, com­mis­sion of­fi­cials said in in­ter­views.

“The pre­scrip­tion for pa­tient Earth is that we’ve got a lim­ited amount of time to fix things,” said com­mis­sion co-chair­man Dr. An­thony Costello, a pe­di­a­tri­cian and di­rec­tor of the Global Health In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity Col­lege of Lon­don. “We’ve got a real chal­lenge par­tic­u­larly with car­bon pol­lu­tion.”

He called it a “med­i­cal emer­gency” that could even­tu­ally dwarf the deadly toll of HIV in the 1980s. He and oth­ers said burn­ing coal does more than warm the Earth, but causes even more deaths from other types of air pol­lu­tion that hurt peo­ple’s breath­ing and hearts.

Un­like its ear­lier re­port in 2009, which laid out the health prob­lems of cli­mate change, this re­port was more about what can be done to im­prove the planet’s health. It calls for cut­ting air pol­lu­tion, more walk­ing and cy­cling and less driv­ing, bet­ter ur­ban de­sign, putting a price on the cost of each ton of car­bon be­ing used, im- proved health care plan­ning for ex­treme weather and check-ups ev­ery two years on how the world is do­ing to get health­ier.

“Vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing that you want to do to tackle cli­mate change has health ben­e­fits,” Costello said. “We’re go­ing to cut heart at­tacks, strokes, di­a­betes.”

The Lancet com­mis­sion re­port came out days af­ter an im­pas­sioned plea to fight global warm­ing by Pope Fran­cis and hours af­ter Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion is­sued a re­port em­pha­siz­ing the costs of in­ac­tion on cli­mate change and the ben­e­fits of do­ing some­thing now. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion said if noth­ing is done, at the turn of the next cen­tury about 57,000 Amer­i­cans will die each year from pol­luted air and at least another 12,000 yearly from ex­treme tem­per­a­tures.

“Obama is not a doc­tor; peo­ple trust doc­tors more,” Costello said.

In a com­pan­ion post­ing in Lancet, World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion di­rec­tor gen- eral Mar­garet Chan also com­pares fight­ing cli­mate change to fight­ing smok­ing and sav­ing lives. Both Chan and the Lancet com­mis­sion quote WHO stud­ies that say by 2030 cli­mate change would “be likely to cause about 250,000 ad­di­tional deaths per year” around the world.

Poverty is the main prob­lem and burn­ing coal to pro­duce elec­tric­ity helps fight that, said Na­tional Min­ing As­so­ci­a­tion spokesman Luke Popovich. He said, “it makes far more sense to sup­port the tech­nolo­gies that make coal cleaner to use than to sup­port poli­cies that would deny its use to those who right­fully want the com­forts of civ­i­liza­tion.”

But Har­vard School of Public Health epi­demi­ol­o­gist Joel Schwartz called the Lancet study’s coal phase-out “a rea­son­able pre­scrip­tion for planet Earth. Burn­ing coal has ter­ri­ble health ef­fects, is bad for global warm­ing and it is de­struc­tive of the ecosys­tem.”


In this April 3, 2014 file photo, gi­ant ma­chines dig for brown coal at the open-cast min­ing Garzweiler near the city of Greven­broich, western Ger­many.

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