Climate change and health – what’s the problem?
Matthew HR Anstey1,2
The scientific consensus is that global warming is occurring and is largely the result of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. This paper examines the health implications of global warming, the current socio-political attitudes towards action on climate change and highlight the health co-benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, policy development for climate change and health should embrace health systems strengthening, commencing by incorporating climate change targets into Millennium Development Goal 7.
The final report of the Lancet commission on climate
change suggested that “climate change is the biggest
global health threat of the 21st century” . In a medical world that is oft dominated by ‘evidence based medicine’, there is resounding scientific consensus that global warming is occurring and is largely the result of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity . And yet, while political accord on tackling global warming remains fractious, global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, hitting a
record high last year . Within this landscape, this commentary outlines the health implications of global warming, the current socio-political attitudes towards action on climate change, and argues that policy development for public health and climate change should highlight the health co-benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In the last 3 decades the Earth’s surface has warmed by
approximately 0.6°C and climate models predict further
rises between 1.1°C and 6.4°C over the 21st century .
These rising temperatures will be responsible for increased number of mosquitoes (models suggest that 300 million more people will be affected by malaria by 2080), heatwaves causing heatstroke, and increased dengue fever cases, gastroenteritis and other climate sensitive infectious diseases . World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates in 2000 suggested that 5.5 million DALYs were lost as a consequence of increased cardiovascular disease, diarrhoea, malaria, injuries from flooding and malnutrition due to climatic changes . Their assessment excluded Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org 1
Lecturer in Anesthesia, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA 2 Harkness Fellow in Health Policy, Commonwealth Fund, New York, USA
the ‘unquantifiable’ health consequences from pollution, changes in food production, temperature extremes, population displacement and conflict. However, other groups have suggested that crop yields will fall by 20-40% with rising temperatures, exacerbating existing food shortages that already lead to malnutrition and the deaths of 3.5 million women and young children every year . Similarly, 16% of people in developing countries currently do not have access to clean water, and 48% lack access to adequate sanitation, a situation that will deteriorate further with changing rainfall patterns . Major weather related disasters that have led to more than 2 billion people being affected by floods, drought, fires and cyclones over recent
years are also expected to increase . Natural disasters
lead to mass environmental disruption, displacement and
migration of people, and advancing the process of urbanisation. Urbanisation itself, with its higher density population, potentially increases people’s vulnerability to climate change, especially when settlements are not designed to be ‘climate resilient’ . All of these considerations exclude the potential indirect health consequences from the economic disruption that climate change will bring, especially for developing countries with agrarian economies. A criticism regarding predictions of global warming and health is the uncertainty and complexity of attributing...