Climate Change and Health: Brace Yourselves

When the Bush administration redacted a report from the CDC last October to change it from focusing on the health risks of climate change to focusing on the health benefits, I think a lot of us were left asking what those health risks might be. Actually, that’s not true. Most of us could more easily figure out those health risks than figure out what they were thinking in making the CDC testify on the health benefits of climate change. But wait, that's not true either. We could figure that out, too. As has become par for the course with this administration on climate change they were thinking about maintaining the status quo.

The U.N. is already sounding alarm bells about food shortages related to climate change and the recent decrease in rice yields would bare that out. We have seen trauma to certain pollinator populations like bees and bats, some of which is most certainly related to climate change. The World Health Organization is now saying unequivocally that “Climate change is a significant and emerging threat to public health, and changes the way we must look at protecting vulnerable populations.” In addition to natural disaster deaths from heatwaves, floods and draughts, they also point to the increased spread of malaria and dengue fever from increasing mosquito populations due to more temperate weather and more hospitable locations, diarrhea (a killer in the developing world and often transmitted through drinking dirty water which has become more prevalent as water has become scarcer) and malnutrition. They officially estimate more than 150,000 deaths annually as being the result of climate change. I was left wondering if they have been counting the deaths during Hurricane Katrina and those that have occurred since among the displaced populations. If not, there is some serious under estimating going on.

And this may be part of the problem; what gets defined as a climate related death? Because there is no official recognition of Hurricane Katrina to climate change, no official linkage of the California wildfires to climate change, no official linkage of the Mumbai floods to climate change, people can see these events as natural disasters, aberrations instead of our future. And while the effects of climate change may be more severe in the developing world, the risks are also a huge problem in the developed world. This can go unnoticed.

For example, while the WHO is focusing on Asia, Africa and the Pacific region with particular concern, a recent report warns that the climate in Greece could become like that of Egypt in just 60 years due to climate change. Summer temperatures in Greece have increased 6 – 7 degrees over the last few years, twice the temperature increase in many other parts of the world. 150 people died there last summer when temperatures reached one of their highest point in the last 150 years. With predicted rainfall decreases in the Mediterranean of up to 20% over the next 100 years, they have reason to worry. I have been to Greece in June where it is lovely and the fruit trees are abundant. I have also been to Egypt in June where it is generally unbearably hot and barren in many parts of the country.

One would think that if nothing else, the public health risks would get people to act, yet public health has not been a main focus in the public conversations about climate change. Would the CDC’s original testimony on the health risks have made any difference? It is hard to say in a country that has become inured through the nightly local headlines that use fear mongering about killer bees and rabid dogs on the loose as a way to get people to stay tuned after the commercial break. Unlike the killer bees, however, the adverse health ramifications of climate change are real, immediate and already happening.

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  • Posted on March 31, 2008. Listed in:

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