P-K4 Project Editorial
This essay is part of the current series that goes towards building a greener future and is published in conjunction with the Rio+20 Summit on sustainable development.
Tackling climate change benefits health in more ways than one. Climate change affects health through its wide-ranging impacts. Tackling it requires pro-active approaches and preventive measures, both of which are complementary in bringing about health benefits.
Climate change and its health impact
The world has witnessed rising temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions from human activities and development such as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and land-use changes. Increasing emissions of greenhouse gases which trap heat lead to an “enhanced greenhouse effect”.
Climate change is happening now as evidenced by melting snow and ice and rising global sea levels caused by increased global temperatures. The UK Hadley Research Centre has indicated that the ten warmest years until 2005 have occurred within the past decade and before.
Climate change affects the following determinants of health – air, water, food, shelter and disease exposure. High temperatures increase levels of ground level pollutants such as ozone in areas that are already polluted. This results in increased vulnerability to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
Climate change also causes a shift in rainfall patterns and in addition, increased evaporation rates. This leads to increased frequency and duration of droughts involving larger areas of affected land. Consequently, safe water supply for drinking and sanitation is adversely affected, triggering diarrhoeal diseases outbreaks.
Increased temperatures and rainfall shifts can affect crop yields, leading to under-nutrition and nutritional deficiencies. Under-nutrition causes 3.5 million deaths annually, either directly or due to increased vulnerability to infectious diseases.
Rising sea levels as a result of climate change could render those living in coastal areas vulnerable to the effects of flooding. Current projections estimate that by 2080, the number of people exposed to coastal flooding will be increased ten-fold. Besides, such disasters will also trigger population displacement, and those affected could face problems in finding decent shelters. This increases their risks of suffering from infectious diseases and mental disorders such as depression.
Finally, climate change adversely affects people’s ability to stay free from diseases. Shifting patterns of rainfall and increased humidity facilitates the spread of mosquito-borne and diarrhoeal diseases. Estimates suggest that climate change may place an additional 170 million Africans at risk of malaria by 2030.
Reducing emissions improves health
An obvious response to climate change is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions which brings with it health benefits.
The use of simple cooking stoves leads not only to increased emissions, but also respiratory infections in children. High-efficiency stoves on the other hand produce less emission gases, and also less indoor pollution which affects children.
Secondly, livestock farming is responsible for production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In addition, consumption of saturated fat from livestock affects cardiovascular health. Therefore, reducing consumption of saturated fats leads to reduced heart disease within the population. This can be achieved by reducing the production of food, and subsequently, methane from livestock.
Transport in the form of motor vehicles leads to emissions from fossil fuels. Reducing motor vehicle use not only reduces emissions, but also leads to more walking and cycling. Such activities result in significant health benefits such as reduced cardiovascular diseases, depression, diabetes and dementia.
Finally, generating electricity comes at a double price – greenhouse gas and airborne particles emissions. The latter causes cardiovascular and respiratory problems. Changing methods of electrical production can be aimed at reducing both greenhouse and particulate emissions, and ultimately deaths.
Lessening the impact of climate change
Knowing how climate change affects human health allows us to design strategies to reduce its health impact.
Since climate change can affect quantity and quality of water supply especially in dry regions, scaling up water and sanitation services is a possible approach. Availability of safe drinking water and sanitation help prevent outbreaks of diarrhoeal diseases. The benefits of such interventions are greater than costs, making them wise investments. Other approaches involve the use of insecticide sprays and bednets to limit the spread of malaria and other infectious diseases that may otherwise spread as a result of climate change.
Another possible intervention is to have an effective surveillance and response system capable of managing any infectious disease. Climate change results in an abrupt change in environmental conditions that could lead to increasing contact between humans and possible sources of infections. An integrated system capable of human health surveillance, monitoring climate shifts and conditions that favour disease outbreaks could be established. Response systems that mount effective response to outbreaks can be included as supplements.
Improving health through tackling climate change should involve a dual approach. The first involves directly reducing greenhouse emissions which comes with its associated health benefits. The second attempts to lessen the health impacts of climate change. Both should be pursued together with the goal of deriving maximum health benefits.
Photo courtesy of artybreed, Flickr Commons. This write-up was reproduced from a student’s essay that was submitted in April 2012.