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Pollution and climate change: two current threats

News keeps on coming and shows a concerning scenario. Several SARS-CoV-2 different variants have shown up and spread across the planet, attenuating the optimism provided by the vaccine deployment; the conditions of life of most of the population are precarious and the situation does not seem to change in the short term.

Gradually, the awareness that there are many other diseases, apart from COVID-19, that continue to afflict humanity is coming back; while the wildfires in Canada, flooding in Germany, droughts in Afghanistan, and Madagascar show the climate change that has been occurring for years. And the Colombians still maintain the devastation of what happened on the island of Providencia, a few months back, due to hurricane Iota in mind.

I’ve been talking about the pandemic regularly, as this has been the main axis of my articles in this journal and the syndemic has also been approached in two previous articles1, so I will not comment on these. But pollution and climate change require more reflection, given their importance and actuality.

A toxic world

Before the current pandemic, the World Health Organization had called on facing 10 great health world challenges, directing the five-year strategic plan that began in 2019. Among them, air pollution is highlighted given its magnitude and priority, therefore this organization claims that “nine out of ten people breathe polluted air”2 having a great effect on the health of the world population.

It is estimated that this contamination is the first environmental factor contributing to the world's morbidity load and the main cause is the burning of fossil fuels, although, surely there are other causes that participate in the issue. Although the loss of air quality impacts us all, both the damages as the exposure levels are typically differential according to social groups and geographic areas, as is often the case with public healthcare issues.

It is widely known that people and families that live near highways and industrial settings are more exposed to greater levels of pollution, while those that use solid fuels as a domestic energy source are also most affected by pollution in internal settings. It is also estimated that most cities with mid and low-income levels do not comply with international air quality standards 3.

The problem is so great that according to estimates, between 6 and 7 million people die prematurely every year from diseases related to air pollution and the economic losses are enormous, around 6 to 7% of the world GDP, although its accountancy has not been completely established 4.

Many sectors of production produce pollution but we need to keep in mind, as the sixth edition of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report mentions, power, and fuel production is the anthropogenic sector greatest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and sulfur dioxide (SO2) different from methane (COVNM) and the main emitter of other atmospheric pollutants.

We should note that air pollution is just one aspect of the disastrous environmental situation we are enduring. We cannot forget water pollution, the impact on the ozone layer, and the permanent exposure to toxic substances in foods or some other media.

According to the mentioned UNEP report, an ample array of agricultural and cattle raising practices alter the nitrogen cycle and the greenhouse effect gases (GEG) and increase pollution due to fertilizers and pesticides, favoring the loss of biodiversity and soil breakdown. It is estimated that agriculture, silviculture, and other soil use contribute 25% to the global emission of the GEG. Although in this aspect there is a strong imbalance between the so-called developed countries and those considered in development (a euphemism that, in some opportunities, is usually used to identify impoverished countries pillaged by the former.)

This unforgiving pollution by several toxic substances notably impacts rivers and oceans, therefore marine pollution is also an enormous issue. In diverse water sources and reservoirs, there are all types of substances, from pesticides and plastic bags to appliances and drugs. It is estimated that every year between 5 and 12 tons of plastics are dumped into the ocean, which is an alarming figure5.

All this and more add to the environmental disaster, which is due to the way of life humans have privileged during the last decades, and whose main axis is an exploiting, accumulating, and aggressive production mode, added to an insatiable, wasteful, and obsessive consumption. Therefore, the pollution we live in is a consequence of the production and consumption mode we humans have adopted. And all this not only alters the relationship form between different biological species but also profoundly impacts the environmental backdrop of the planet.

The controversy around climate change

One of these impacts has to do with climate change; a term coined to describe the transformations of the earth’s climate system in a long period and which today has great importance due to the fact that we are living due to these transformations. Despite the skepticism of some decades, today few informed people seem to doubt this change is happening. Thawing of the polar areas, forest fire intensification, heat waves, floods, and droughts seem to have at last convinced us that climate change is a reality.

But what does elicit great discussion and debate is if this change is due to the action of human beings. What usually is called the anthropogenic cause of climate change. The issue is complex, delicate and leads to difficulty establishing a specific causal attribute. And this, at some time, polarized the scientific community that although necessary to say, every time experts strongly agree that climate change has anthropogenic causes.

According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (more than 200 experts from 66 countries) concluded after 3 years of work that the heating rhythm of the planet of the last decades is unprecedented, at least in the last 2 thousand years and on the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence that humans have influenced this climate change6.

The IPCC strongly supports the idea that the climate change we are living and enduring has anthropogenic causes. The proof, according to my criteria, is compelling. But despite this agreement supported by a review of several thousand scientific papers, the debate is not over as there are still certain doubts and some experts maintain they aren’t sufficient data to establish the conclusion of the report.

This discussion has been present in professor chats of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal), as some discussion has taken place and the debate has been algid. In general, the protagonists have been physics, geology, and engineering professors, although we have also seen input from chemists, biologists, biochemists, and others. More recently, professors of the Faculty of Law, Social and Political Sciences have participated in the discussion from the environmental law perspective.

During the last month and a half, the discussion has been intense, although most of whom have participated sustain that the shown in the IPCC report is more than reasonable given the accrued evidence, other colleagues have insisted it is not enough. I want to highlight four central points that have been put forward by them and maintain the internal debate: 1) Global heating has occurred in other opportunities, without any human intervention and the current goes back some 9,000 years; 2) The weight of natural phenomena linked to the solar effect and earth inclination is not dismissible; 3) We still do not know how much CO2 comes from human activity and without this information, it is impossible to determine that humans are responsible for global heating; 4) The consensus between scientists has been stimulated (and even forced) by political interests.

These points have been contemplated and debated by other experts7 and were considered by those that wrote the IPCC report but certainly, the debate will continue and new evidence should come into play to address some of the arguments that confront members of the scientific community. It is clear that the debate illustrates the complexity of the scientific endeavor and its complete insertion in ample social dynamics. For now, and thinking as a public health expert, I consider climate change to be deeply interwoven with environmental pollution and both issues meddle with the current syndemic situation leading to the synergy established between COVID-19 and the rest of current epidemics. Which, undoubtedly, configures a threatening scenario on which public health needs to act upon.









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