Now is the time to put the spotlight on health and climate: Damian Ryan

Reading time: 5 minutes
14 May 2015

Damian Ryan, Head of International Policy, The Climate Group, writes about the links between health and climate change and how taking ambitious action to cut greenhouse gas emissions also leads to major short and long term health benefits. The blog follows the release of our health and climate briefing paper ahead of the World Health Assembly in Geneva.

Around the world medical professionals are increasingly concerned about the link between climate change and health. Indeed, in 2009, the eminent UK medical journal, The Lancet, stated that climate change represented “the biggest health challenge of the 21st century”.

But why exactly?

The simple answer is that a rapidly warming world will help create or exacerbate the conditions that make a range of illnesses, diseases or injuries more likely to occur. The scale and scope of climate change makes these impacts global. They will also occur at a time when health systems will be under increasing strain from aging populations and the impact of so-called lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Direct and indirect health impacts

The most direct and obvious health impact for many will be from an increase in frequency and intensity of summer heat waves. Such events in Western Europe in 2003 and in Russia in 2009 resulted in an extra 80,000 and 50,000 premature deaths respectively. The majority of these occurred in vulnerable poor and elderly populations and over a period of just a few weeks.

A warmer climate will also enable the spread of certain ‘vector-borne’ diseases that are otherwise contained by temperature thresholds that limit the habitat of the vector. Malaria, spread by the anopheles mosquito, is a case in point. Evidence suggests that the disease is now present in regions that were previously too cool for the mosquito to survive, such as the highlands of Ethiopia.

Such impacts will not be limited to developing countries. Rich countries are not immune. Cases of the West Nile virus, a potentially lethal mosquito-borne disease, for example, are expected to spread in the US as a result of climate change. Lyme disease, transmitted by ticks and causing flu-like systems, is also expected to benefit from a warmer world. In 2014, the US Environmental Protection Agency added the disease to its list of climate change indicators.

Climate change will also bring other in-direct, but no less damaging health impacts for many communities. For example, damage to water supplies and sewage systems as result of more destructive and frequent floods and hurricanes, is expected to increase the likelihood of water and food borne diseases. This is especially true in poor communities with limited resilience and capacity to adapt.

Impact on water supplies is already occurring in Bangladesh, not as a result of storm damage, but as a consequence of rising sea levels caused by climate change. Professor Paolo Veneis, a leading climate and health expert from Imperial College, London (interviewed for our separate health and climate briefing, here) is studying the problem. He notes that the intrusion of salty water into water supplies can lead to increased hypertension and other negative health impacts associated with increased salt intake. Hundreds of thousands are exposed to this risk in Bangladesh alone.

Adaptation is important but it’s not a panacea

Clearly adaptation can play a major role in reducing many of these health impacts. Air conditioning for vulnerable households can help avoid heat stress; sleeping nets and integrated pest management techniques can keep mosquitos in check; and desalination of water supplies avoids the risk of high blood pressure and associated ill-health.

But prevention is always better than the cure and ultimately there will come a point where the limits of adaptation are reached, not least because of cost. For years governments and medical professionals have encouraged us to eat healthily and exercise to avoid future costs associated with heart disease or cancer. We now need to cut carbon to do the same to avoid future climate related diseases and the costs they will impose on ourselves, our families and our economy.

It’s not only about the future though

But the link between climate and health isn’t just about future costs and impacts, important as they are. The reality today – and a fact underappreciated beyond the medical community – is that climate pollutants are already making us sick. Indeed, very sick.

In cities around the world, both rich and poor, nitrous oxides and ozone – two important greenhouse gases – together with particulate matter from burning coal and other fossil fuels, are combining to create urban smog that is taking years off people’s lives.

In northern China, for example, home to some of the world’s most polluted cities, a joint Chinese-US study found that air pollution created by coal use has reduced average life expectancy by 5.5 years.

Even in the US, where the Clean Air Act has done much to reduce pollution, the impacts of continued coal use are non-trivial. A Harvard Medical study, for example, estimated that coal use cost the US between US$345-500 billion a year in negative health effects, far outweighing the economic benefit from coal’s use as a source of energy. Unsurprisingly, the proposed introduction of new power plant emissions rules is expected to avoid some 100,000 asthma attacks and over 2000 heart attacks.  

In many poorer countries the threat to health is not only from outdoor pollution. The use of inefficient, poorly ventilated kerosene and biomass cooking stoves is also an important contributor to the 7 million deaths worldwide that the World Health Organization attributes to air pollution each year. Heart and lung disease are the main killers. The use of these stoves also releases CO2 and can drive local deforestation, contributing to further environmental damage.

The definition of ‘win-win’

It is clear then from the evidence that we have already that there are major benefits to health from tackling climate change.

By acting to reduce greenhouse gases today, governments and businesses can simultaneously avoid future health costs and the effect of today’s climate pollutants on their citizens and workforces.

Integrating health concerns into climate policies and low carbon business plans offers significant ‘win-win’ opportunities and benefits for our climate, communities and economies.


Research thanks to Mary Davies and Ilario D'Amato

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