Climate change: it's time for the health sector to get involved

Earth Day Special Feature 2011: The global healthcare industry must begin lobbying for a low-carbon future. Why? Because the effects of lowering greenhouse gas emissions benefit health, a study says.
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor

Moving past the doom and gloomy fatalism of climate change, scientists are looking towards positive action, calling upon the health sector to join the mitigation or adaptation debate.

The health effects of climate change haven’t received much attention from climate scientists and governments. (For example, in preparation for Copenhagen in 2009, only 4 of 47 nations mentioned human health as a consideration.)

Now, a University College London paper calls on the health sector to play a more prominent role in lobbying for the reduction of greenhouse gases.

As it turns out, many measures to reduce emissions in household energy, transportation, food, agriculture, and electricity generation have benefits for health. These include (as we’ve already heard, but just as a reminder) increasing active transport like walking and cycling and decreasing car use, reducing the high consumption of animal products, and generating electricity from low-carbon sources.

As a result (or even a side effect), we could see reductions in:

  • child mortality from acute respiratory infections
  • ischemic heart disease in adults
  • obesity, heart disease, and diabetes
  • stress and depression
  • pneumonia and asthma
  • Not to mention the cost savings within the health sector.

The researchers answer some questions raised by climate ‘catastrophists,’ as they say:

- Will populations succumb to heat stress?

Human populations can survive in high temperatures; many groups are even well adapted to these climes. But exceeding 35 degrees Celsius (or 95 degrees Fahrenheit) for extended periods would induce hyperthermia, and the risk rises sharply with climate warming of several degrees.

- Will the spread of infectious diseases cause major increases in mortality rates?

While the transmission rates of vector-borne diseases Dengue and malaria may rise with increasing geographical spread of mosquitoes, control measures as part of good public health should continue to limit epidemics. Predictions of an intensification of malaria in a warmer world must be considered against a century of warming that has seen marked global declines in the disease – especially with the use of preventatives like repellents and bed nets.

The biggest threat from infectious disease probably comes from unknown emerging infections crossing from animals to humans, which could increase with species elimination or loss of wilderness.

- Will reduced food production increase the risk of hunger and famines?

There are definitely risks of reduced crop yields, increased pests, drought or too much rainfall at the wrong time, and increasing scarcity of water and land. (The amount of arable land per person worldwide has halved over the past 40 years because of increased food demands.)

But there are many reasons to be optimistic! For example, new seeds that are drought- or flood-resistant and cheaper access to desalinated water through nanotechnology.

Lastly, the authors call for increased investments in order to provide effective public health responses to climate-induced threats to health.

Health facilities, after all, act as early warning systems for epidemics and nutritional deterioration. So, they say, investment in health systems to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is also a longer-term investment to manage the health effects of climate change.

The review was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.

Image by imelenchon via morgueFile

More from SmartPlanet's Earth Day Special Feature 2011:

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