Climate change: the health effects

Professor Robert Lee | 13 years ago

On 23 July the European Commission published the report ‘How can we manage the health impacts of climate change?’. Climate change is said to be the greatest health threat of the 21st century, threatening the health of people across the globe, with the world’s poorest suffering the severest consequences, when they have contributed least to the problem.

The report calls upon governments, international agencies, non-governmental organisations, communities and academics to respond to the threat and work together to develop and introduce appropriate health strategies. Aware that this is a largely adaptive response, the report emphasises the continuing need for mitigation strategies to reduce GHG emissions. This fits with a public-health framework, especially required in vulnerable countries.

The report identifies six major threats to health from climate change:

  • Disease, including changing patterns of infection, insect and rodent-borne diseases, and related mortality exacerbated by climate change, as with the European heat waves of 2003, which were estimated to have killed up to 70,000 people;
  • Food, with changes in diet caused by climate change possibly leading to malnutrition, hunger and food insecurity, particularly in poorer areas;
  • Water and sanitation, including water shortage, flooding, lack of clean water, inadequate sanitation and drainage, and the spread of water-borne diseases, such as diarrhoea;
  • Shelter and settlements, the vulnerable disproportionately affected, especially people in urban slums and those living in poor housing conditions;
  • Extreme events, with more and stronger cyclones, hurricanes and storm surges responsible for flooding and injury;
  • Population and migration, particularly large-scale migration as communities flee from inhospitable conditions;

Alongside this, five key challenges have been identified, to be met if the catastrophic health consequences of climate change are to be avoided:

  • Information, specifically the generation and communication of more reliable, relevant and up-to-date information at global, national and local levels, on how to tackle the harmful health effects of climate change, particularly in developing countries;
  • Better healthcare systems. With the harshest effects of climate change felt particularly by the poor, healthcare systems in vulnerable and under-resourced countries must be strengthened, and greater efforts made to address poverty and inequality;
  • Technological innovation, needed in climate science and related technological solutions, such as for food security, safe water and better buildings, with technological solutions available to a wide range of social and cultural groups throughout the world;
  • Reformed political structures, to encourage low-carbon living to boost global health benefits, including less stress, obesity, diabetes and heart disease, better air quality and a more sustainable way of life;
  • Greater accountability for governments and international institutions dealing with climate change, and greater empowerment for poor countries, local governments and communities, to allow them to act on climate change.

See further: Costello, A., Abbas, M., Allen, A., et al. (2009) Managing the health effects of climate change,. Lancet. 373: 1693–733. The report can be downloaded here.

About the author

Professor Robert Lee

ERIC Director and Head of Birmingham Law School, Professor Robert Lee was co-director of the publicly funded Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society at Cardiff University (BRASS). He is an expert on regulation, including environmental regulation and regulation of biotechnology and biomedicine. He previously worked for two top 10 UK law firms, and remains a professional-development consultant to one of the largest law firms in Europe, working on pan-European delivery of legal services.