Last month saw the United Kingdom, Australia, Guatemala, Pakistan and Tanzania add themselves to the list of 114 countries who have ratified the ‘Paris Agreement’. We have also seen a renewed commitment to renewable energy (47 countries pledged to be 100% renewable energy by 2020), and large strides forward have been made in scaling up adaptation finance. This has happened alongside the rise of populism in the United States and Europe.

In such an unstable political environment, we cannot afford to forget the human face of climate change – the urgent and potentially catastrophic effects that a changing global environment is having on public health.

The World Health Organization estimated that in 2012, 23% of all deaths were linked to preventable, environmental risk factors.

Climate change threatens to act as a threat multiplier for many of these risks. Whether we are talking about rising temperatures and extremes of weather such as flooding, droughts, and heatwaves and their devastating health consequences. These risks are often exacerbated by other environmental stressors, undermining food and water security, creating the conditions for a spread in infectious diseases, and displacing populations.

One thing we know for certain is that countries and people who have contributed the least to the problem, will be worst affected.

To help respond to this burden, the world now has the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Paris Agreement, and the Sustainable Development Goals – both providing opportunities to tackle climate change and improve human health.

Crucially, as highlighted repeatedly in the medical journal The Lancet, interventions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions provide immense benefits for human wellbeing. Many of these interventions result in cleaner air, healthier diets, and communities that promote social inclusion and physical activity. When we achieve these health benefits, the attendant reductions in costs to the healthcare system often make the initial intervention cost-effective.

In a world with such political instability, there are plentiful examples of countries and cities ‘getting on with it’.  

Launched last month, the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change will track these trends and examples on an annual basis, demonstrating the benefits to health that an accelerated response to climate change holds.

Ultimately, healthcare professionals, governments and countries need to shift from an understanding of climate change solely as a threat, to embracing the response to climate change as an opportunity to safeguard and maximize human health and wellbeing.

This will also continue regardless of the world political situation. As the former UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres noted at the launch of the Lancet Countdown – the world is rapidly moving towards a decarbonized economy, and the direction of travel is set.