Roland Koch

“A healthy lifestyle is also good for the climate”

In early December, the Lancet Countdown published a new report on the global link between climate change and health. Annette Peters researches the consequential interconnections at the Helmholtz Zentrum München.

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Ms. Peters, environmental pollution such as exhaust fumes or contaminated water is bad for our health. That's easy to grasp. But why is climate change harmful to our health?
There are many different consequences of climate change that directly impact our health. Heat waves, for example, are occurring more frequently and putting stress on our cardiovascular systems. People who live in cities, where heat waves are felt more keenly, are especially affected by this development. New infectious diseases are spreading, for example through the tiger mosquito, which now enjoys conducive living conditions here in Germany. We are also looking at how our mental health is being affected. Does the impact go beyond just not being able to think so well when it’s hot outside? On hot days we’re also seeing a higher number of heart attacks among people with diabetes and high cholesterol levels. Overall, changes in our climate directly affect our health in a wide variety of ways.

Portrait Prof. Dr. Annette Peters
Portrait Prof. Dr. Annette Peters
Prof. Dr. Annette Peters researches at Helmholtz Zentrum München on the effects of climate change on health

Which of these topics are you researching?
My team and I are primarily researching the biological processes that occur in the body on hot days. We are especially interested in looking at what happens on a molecular level when several hot days occur in a row. We also want to find out how heat – together with air pollutants and noise – impacts urban environments, in other words how these factors interact to affect our health.

Do you have any findings already?
We are able to demonstrate, for example, that the negative effects of air pollutants on the human body increase when temperatures rise. Heat has an intensifying effect, which means that pollutants in the air will pose a greater threat to us as climate change increases.

What topics does the 2020 report cover?
It focuses on three main topics: nutrition, exercise, and healthy cities. There is a close connection between climate change and health. For example, exercise is good for our health. And if we bike to work, we also emit fewer greenhouse gases. A healthier diet gets by with less meat, which avoids intensive livestock farming practices. In healthy cities, we as inhabitants are personally better off, and there are more green spaces and sustainable energy production. It is easy to see that there is an intensive interplay between people’s health and the climate. A good climate prevents health issues – and a healthy lifestyle goes hand in hand with climate protection.

What recommendations does the report offer to German policymakers?
The report essentially touches on four points. Once policymakers go about shifting the economy into high gear again after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended, they should seize the opportunity to stimulate a more eco- and climate-friendly economy. They should push for a more rigorous transition to organic food production in order to reduce meat consumption and promote more sustainable production methods. They should promote active transport in cities. And, together with urban planners and architects, they should ensure that cities are designed with a view to greater sustainability in the future.

Who is behind the report?
A group of some 120 international experts is responsible for the report. The policy brief for Germany, for example, is a collaboration between Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, the Helmholtz Zentrum München, the Charité, the German Medical Association, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Are there any lessons we can learn from the current health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic that are applicable to climate protection, too?
Yes, certainly. For one thing, we are currently seeing that things previously considered to be set in stone can absolutely be changed. For example, it has been quieter and the air has been cleaner in many places throughout cities in recent months. Another thing is that we’ve seen how drastic and far-reaching such global events can be. While climate change is happening less abruptly than the pandemic, its effects will also be serious, which is why it’s so important that we take timely and decisive steps to counteract them. We still have the possibility to keep the effects of climate change within tolerable limits.

The 2020 Lancet Countdown report was presented on December 3, 2020. More information:

Prof. Dr. Annette Peters is Director of the Institute of Epidemiology at the Helmholtz Zentrum München – Research Center for Environmental Health. She also chairs the German National Cohort.