Jan 29 2008
Climate Change and Health
By Tom Burke
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The politics of climate change
This also changes the politics. Urgency is not the same as immediacy. We successfully fought the Cold War because the Soviets had their tanks on our lawns and their ideas in our factories. So we spent billions of pounds on weapons we hoped never to use and when they became obsolete, we threw them away and bought newer and more expensive weapons we hoped never to use.
The threat of climate change to the security, prosperity and well being of Britain’s citizens is a lot more certain than was the danger of the Cold War turning hot. Responding successfully will take an even bigger effort than winning the Cold War but such is the nature of the problem that by the time the tanks are visible it will be too late to respond.
Which is why it is so important that people quickly come to understand the impacts of climate change on their health. Health is personal, intimate, immediate. All the things that climate change is not.
You will be hearing a lot more of the detail about the interaction between climate change and health later this morning. As research continues and our understanding of the many impacts of climate change on our lives grows, it is becoming clear that the impacts on our health will be among those that are earliest and most widespread.
Stressing the stressors
There is often a rather sterile debate about whether climate change causes a particular harm to human beings – conflict in sub-Saharan Africa for example. Climate change does not work in such a simple way.
It works by stressing all the other stressors on human well being. Conflict in Darfur has many causes of which climate change, by altering precipitation patterns, is one. The excess deaths in Europe observed during the 2003 heatwave were not caused by climate change alone, but climate change was responsible for making the outcome worse than it might otherwise have been.
We are beginning to get a good understanding of some of the direct effects of climate change on infectious disease vectors, on allergies and air quality as well as heat stress. But the indirect effects are less well understood if potentially more significant.
Hurricane Katrina gave us all an unforgettable insight into what an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events might mean in even the most organised of societies. Less noticed in the immediate horror of that event was the long term damage to hospitals and the essential public health infrastructure on which so much of human well being depends.
The systemic impacts on health will over time be even more significant. One third of the world’s population currently experiences water stress. Two thirds of China’s cities, that is 400, already suffer water shortages. The glaciers that supply Lima in Peru with water will, at current rates of melting, be gone before the middle of the century.
The rapid rise in global food prices last year were partly a consequence of a prolonged drought in some parts of the world and floods elsewhere. Those prices rose 37% globally and that was on top of a 14% rise the year before.
In China, both floods and drought played their part in driving food price inflation to 18%. These pressures were exacerbated by the growing demand for grain to convert to ethanol in order to meet energy security anxieties.
A warmer world makes dry areas drier and, in much of the world, lowers crop yields. Poor nutrition and a lack of access to water for hygiene and sanitation increases vulnerability to other health stresses.
What is clear is that a changing climate will add considerably to the pressures on health services already over-burdened. Katrina is a warning that in the most extreme events they could be completely overwhelmed.
Financial implications and the generational gap
A subtler stress will come as pressure grows to find the public funds necessary to finance the response to climate change. We cannot avoid some climate change and will have to pay to adapt to its consequences. This will not be cheap and we will have to pay for it at the same time as we are paying to cut emissions dramatically.
The medical professions could well find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Climate policy failure could well lead to a squeeze from both ends as demand for health services grows in the face of the impacts of climate change at the same time as governments need to divert funds from healthcare in order to stop climate change becoming even more dangerous.
A little while ago I was interviewed for a Channel 4 film on climate change. At the end of the session, the interviewer asked if the situation was really as bad as I was portraying. Without really thinking I said, ‘Don’t be under forty. That’s my advice if we fail to solve this problem.’ Needless to say, that made it into the film.
On reflection, I meant exactly what I said. Anyone in Britain under forty today has, thanks to the medical professions, a very good chance of living beyond the middle of the century. By that time, if we have failed to get a grip on this problem, the visible prospect for humanity will be looking very bleak.