Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of New York City on September 21, 2014 for the People’s Climate March, demanding global action to address climate change. The event took place two days before the UN Climate Summit, a meeting of world leaders to propose solutions for current climate challenges, in an effort to influence policy changes.
Climate change is no longer a conjecture but a scientific consensus. Over the last 100 years, increasing levels of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have resulted in rising temperatures and sea levels, climate variability, and frequent extreme weather events. As reported by the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), eleven of the twelve years between 1995 and 2006 recorded some of the highest surface temperatures in history, and temperatures are projected to increase at an even faster rate.
But what does this mean for global health? Many have now accepted the fact that climate change negatively effects human health. These effects are mainly the result of extreme temperatures, reduced air quality, microbial proliferation, and impaired food yields, but they can vary greatly between different regions. According to the World Health Organization, climate change has already been taking more than 150,000 lives each year for the past 30 years.
Extreme temperatures can result in a variety of dangers like heat waves, tropical cyclones, droughts, and floods, which can in turn cause mortalities. For example, heat waves are linked to cardiovascular mortality, respiratory illnesses, and hyperthermia. In fact, a study conducted by Curriero et al. revealed that mortality rates increase when temperatures are high. 30,000 deaths during a heat wave in Europe in 2003 further support this claim. These mortalities occur mostly in the elderly, children, mentally ill people, those with pre-existing cardiovascular or respiratory disease, and those with insufficient air conditioning. Since these health risks are often difficult to reverse, efforts have been focused on improving healthcare and increasing public awareness of the dangers of rising temperatures.
Additionally, higher temperatures can affect the patterns of transmission of infectious diseases. In particular, higher temperatures are linked to greater risks of food poisoning from Salmonella and water or insect-borne infections. According to a study conducted by Martin and Lefebvre, there is a linear relationship between global warming and malaria, and this relationship can be extended to other similar diseases such as dengue fever and schistosomiasis. When these risks are viewed in a global perspective, countries lacking the necessary medical systems are most susceptible to invasion by these diseases, further segregating these countries from those with sufficient protection.
Moreover, climate change will produce droughts and floods that will unevenly alter crop yields. As discussed by McMichael et al., some countries at higher latitudes will yield larger amounts of food, but most will experience a blow to the quantity, incomes, and nutrition. In fact, according to the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, by 2020, crop yields could increase by 20% in East and Southeast Asia, but decrease by up to 30% in Central and southern Asia and up to 50% in African countries. This prospective increase in food insecurity affects not only the well-being and survival of the citizens of these countries, but also global divergence. Many of the most vulnerable countries are reliant on local food production, which, if affected, will force them to turn to others for relief or suffer severely.
So what are the implications for the global economy and what is currently being done to address these health concerns? The rising sea levels will impair fishery yields; the droughts and floods will reduce crop and livestock yields; and the environmental degradation will lead to the displacement of communities. But according to work by J. Longstreth, among these concerns is the critical factor of regional variation that worsens the inequalities of food supply. In another a study by Parry et al., the regional variation in crop production will increase over time as developed countries compensate for the countries with lower yields.
Thus, efforts are currently focused on two main fields: mitigation of climate change and public health preparedness. The first field includes finding alternative energies and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. According to the WHO, this is necessary to reduce the negative health impacts and can have a direct and immediate effect. However, as other research has shown, this field may prove less effective. Climate change would continue for several more decades even if immediate action addressing green house gas emissions were taken.
As climate change is predicted to bring increasing healthcare costs, more efforts are made in terms of public health preparedness. This field consists of assessing vulnerability of countries, health inequalities, and, according to Frumkin et al., the 10 essential services of public health. These services include monitoring health statuses, educating people about health issues, providing sufficient healthcare, and finding solutions to health problems.
While these efforts may be costly and slow-moving, they are now more necessary than e ver. Now that awareness of global warming is spreading, greater action should be taken in developing policies that adequately prepare communities for the effects on diseases, food production, and extreme weather that these changes will bring.
Timothy Dwight College, 2018
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