Warming could create health nightmare

When we think of climate change, we think of the environment and carbon emissions: wet polar bears, rising sea levels and gas-guzzling SUVs. When we think of public health, we think of diseases and cures: AIDS in Africa, hospital infections and quinine pills. The connections are not obvious, but as researchers learn more and more, links between climate change and public health are becoming very clear — and very, very scary.

Climate change, in fact, has the potential to become the most dangerous threat to public health that our generation will know. In an important step toward getting the public-health community to acknowledge its unique position in fighting climate change, the American Public Health Association has designated this week National Public Health Week. The theme? “Climate change: Our Health in the Balance.”

While a medical solution to public-health issues may be one proverbial tool in the kit, it is easy to forget that the root causes of many public-health issues do not involve medicine at all. Public-health experts know prevention is the best way of stopping any epidemic. It is the root source, not the symptoms, that must be treated. To the small child obsessed by playing with sharp objects, the optimal solution is certainly not an endless supply of Band-Aids.

Climate change will be the root source of many public-health nightmares. We are already beginning to see startling trends. The World Health Organization has documented more than 39 new and re-emerging diseases since the 1960s that are linked to global warming. Temperature increases over the past century have led to an estimated loss of 5.5 million disability-adjusted life years and at least 150,000 heat-related deaths. Mosquito populations are expanding across the globe and bringing nasty diseases like West Nile virus, malaria and yellow fever with them. Hotter temperatures also enhance smog formation, exacerbating conditions such as asthma and lung cancer.

If we do not change our behavior, the future will get much worse. Contrary to what some may believe, global warming will not bring more usable water but rather an increased variability in weather and more extreme weather events. Between 1980 and 1996 in the United States, to cite recent statistics, 750,000 cases of disease have been associated with unsafe drinking water. Potable water is also at risk of becoming contaminated, due to extreme events like Hurricane Katrina coupled with a rising sea level. The result? A worldwide shortage of water that will leave millions of people dehydrated and in severe need of water.

Furthermore, rising temperatures may soon scorch warmer latitudes, rendering them incapable of supporting any farmland. This means that drought-prone areas — regions reliant on subsistence farming, such as sub-Saharan Africa — will certainly collapse. Millions of people will be faced with starvation, malnutrition and extreme dehydration. (And I haven’t even mentioned the resulting political conflicts as countries scramble for food and water.)

Some argue that the human race can adapt. It is true that we have cures for vector-borne diseases. It is true that the decline of farmland in warmer latitudes will coincide with an increase in farmland in those latitudes that are colder. Millions of cold-climate-related illnesses will steadily decline. Some even argue that a little bit of global warming might benefit the human race as frozen seaways open up and arable farmland spreads to colder areas.

But this is only possible if the global transition is seamless. Critics imagine that Canadians will abandon any current job they have to work on a theoretically expanded wheat market. Our friendly neighbors to the north will generously distribute the food to victims in central Asia and Africa. A magic light will suddenly go off in everyone’s head and resources will allocated efficiently. Unfortunately, adaptation takes time and global warming necessitates a restructuring of the global economy. In the mean time, disease and malnutrition will have already spread across the globe. Neglecting this fact will endanger the health of billions across the world.

Instead, it is time to move beyond our inclination and to view climate change as something that will not simply take passing effect on the environment. It is time to move past images of melting ice caps and polar bears to ones of overcrowded hospitals and refugee camps. We must acknowledge that public health and the environment are inseparable.

The only question that remains: What should we do? Reducing, reusing, recycling, switching to fluorescent lightbulbs and driving hybrids are good starts. But to stop climate change, we must also change our lifestyle. We must be conscious of the danger it poses at all times and strive to reduce unnecessary consumption in every facet of our lives. Energy can be saved simply by going to sleep earlier. City living remains a much greener alternative to suburban sprawl.

Most importantly, we must convince our communities that climate change is not just about the “environment,” as if the environment was some separate entity. Climate change threatens our health and the health of our children. But the threat is not just in the future — it is happening at this very moment.

Charles Zhu is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College.


  • Doc'81

    If you are interested in the issue of climate change,I recommend you read a book by Bjorn Lomborg called "Cool It". It is a reasoned approach to the issue of climate and global warming. Many scientists believe the Earth is warming and that this is related to Human activity; others believe that other factors are far more important. For example, the world's 1.5 billion head of livestock produce more greenhouse gas effect than all planes, trucks, cars and other forms of transportation in the world combined. If you read this book, you'll also get other facts which are so distorted by the popular press and politically-motivated individuals and groups/countries. For example polar bear populations have been expanding over the last 40 years and the expansion is most prevalent in areas of Canada where it is getting warmer. Far more polar bears are killed by hunting than climate change (and the declining populations are where it's getting colder).

    To your point about Human health, far more people are killed by cold than by heat. As Lomborg states: "In Europe as a whole, about 200,000 people die from excess heat each year. However, about 1.5 million Europeans die annually from excess cold".The first world survey on climate change was completed in 2006 and it shows that the direct effect of climate change in 2050 will mean fewer dead."In total, about 1.4 million people will be saved each year, due to more than 1.7 million fewer deaths from cardiovascular diseases and 365,000 more deaths from respiratory disorders". This holds true all the way through the year 2200.
    In your article,I believe you refer to the Climate Conference in Milan in 2003 after which the WHO published a book estimating increased temperatures since the 1970s to have caused 150,000 deaths in 2000 due to cold, heat, floods, malnutrition, diarrhea, and malaria. However, when they aggregated the numbers, they simply left out cold and heat deaths leading to the total death toll of 153,000. If we actually include those deaths, there are actually 200,000 more people surviving each year due to warming. Even more important is that the cost associated with current efforts to reduce CO2 production (such as Kyoto)is many trillions of dollars for a very small and unpredictable effect on temperature. These funds would be far better spent on initiatives like education on HIV prevention, micro-loans to individuals in developing countries, filters to provide households with potable water, vaccinations, mosquito netting and spraying for malaria, open trade policies, and reforming the oppressive, non-democratic governments that prevent individuals throughout the developing world from making meaningful improvements in their own lives.
    I commend you for raising important issues facing the world, but it would be far better not to try and link them to the issue of climate change. The climate will to continue to change for as long as there is planet Earth. The world was much warmer (and colder) long before Man existed. The idea that we have a significant effect on global climate is just a theory. Remember (or maybe you don't because of your age), thirty years ago, scientists(and news magazines) were warning us of the coming Ice Age. It is more likely that variations in solar output and fluctuations in the Earth's orbit have far more effect on climate than we will ever have.
    That said, we should all try and be as efficient and frugal in our energy use as possible to reduce our pollution of the environment, and to help reserve our oil and other carbon-based resources which are essential for the production of plastics, chemicals, and medicinals that will improve the lives of people throughout the world. The point is, our dollars and human effort would be far better spent developing new technologies for producing energy and adapting to climate change (more hot, cold, wet or dry)of any cause than focusing on the only theoretical effects we may have on global temperature.And please be skeptical and review carefully your sources of information. It is hard to get good data on the whole issue of climate change because it so complex and requires a long time horizon (thousands of years) to evaluate trends.Also sources of funding for research may try to affect the outcome of this research. Certainly, I would look equally skeptically at any global warming activist who owns a 30,000 square foot house and flies around on private jets, and a business that seeks government subsidies for the promise of theoretically reducing global warming.

  • Charles

    I am writing another Op-Ed on Earth Day addressing several of the issues you are raising.

    We may agree or disagree about the actual negative effects from about global warming, but I think your last paragraph is really the most important idea. Whether you believe or don't believe in the human role in global warming, saving energy and reducing this culture of consumption is important in so many other ways.