Climate change has now been recognised as presenting the greatest challenge of our present age. Up to now this problem has largely been viewed through an environmental lens, with those actively engaged in the policy area coming from the environmental policy community.
The publication this year of the latest reports from the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have focused attention on climate change from a much broader cross section of people. This change of focus is largely due to the fact that the scientific assessment of climate change has moved on. Human induced climate change is no longer debated within the scientific community. It is now the mainstream scientific consensus that not only can human activity cause climate change, but that past emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, has already caused global warming (as evident in the report from the IPCC on the Physical Science Basis). Moreover, there is also scientific consensus that the 0.7°C warming that has happened since pre-industrial times has already had an impact on human health in many areas of the world (as outlined in the IPCC report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability).
The extent to which different areas of the world will see further rises in average temperatures varies, as does the extent to which these temperature rises will have a human health impact. The scale and nature of these impacts on health are not just dependent upon the scale of the temperature increases, but on other environmental, physical and societal factors too. For example the increases that are expected in Malaria cases in some areas will depend not just on temperature increases, but on humidity and population density. Moreover, some areas currently suffering from high Malaria incidence will see environmental conditions less conducive for the disease and so lower rates of infection. The problem is that the areas currently experiencing malaria infection largely have the programmes, capacities, and resources allocated to addressing the disease, even if these resources are currently insufficient. Other areas that may become infected due to climate change, however, do not have similar capacities in place. The shift in Malaria infection areas will therefore place a large burden on the health care services of the areas at the current fringe of the malaria infection zone.
The largest health impacts from climate change for Europe are not projected to come from vector borne infectious diseases. This does not mean that these types of health impacts will not arise in Europe. The recent outbreak of chikengunia in Italy is an example of the kind of new health threat that will increasingly confront the public health services across the EU. However, whilst these threats will provide considerable challenges for the health services in Europe, they are not predicted to be climate changes greatest European health impact. A greater threat from climate change is predicted to come from more frequent severe weather events.
The deaths seen in France in 2003 from a heat wave are projected to be repeated, as heat waves become more severe, more common and last longer. Also set to increase in Europe are the deaths and injuries associated with wild fires, storms and floods. This summer has seen an unprecedented number of such incidences across Europe and has highlighted the degree to which authorities need to incorporate disaster preparedness and contingency planning across all policy areas. As an example the emergency utilities that hospitals routinely have include generating capacity in case of power failure, but the floods this summer in the UK cut off mains water supplies – and there was no on site storage of alternative drinking water supplies.
Globally the largest burden of disease from climate change is set to be associated with water shortage. In many regions if climate change warming is higher than 2°C then acute water shortages are predicted to put billions at risk of water stress death. Of course if an entire country runs out of fresh water the population of that country is not likely to sit quietly and await their fate. The mass migrations and conflicts likely to result from such climate induced catastrophes are only now beginning to be realised. This is one of the main reasons why the Nobel Peace prize was jointly awarded this year to the IPCC and Al Gore for their work on highlighting the peace threats climate change posses.
Next year will see a number of events and policy processes that will take forward the debate on climate change and health and provide some political avenues for action to be taken. Firstly the World Health Organisation has announced that the theme for next years world health day on April 7th will be Climate change and Health.
At an EU level the Commission plans four initiatives later next year that will address aspects of the health impacts of climate change. Firstly, in October there will be two documents on disaster risk reduction and disaster prevention, the first led by the development departments of the Commission (DG dev,DG RELEX and DG ECHO) looking at the what the EU can do to support developing countries. The second communication led by DG environment will produce a Communication outlining an integrated strategy on disaster prevention. These will be followed by a White Paper and a Communication on adaptation to climate change and climate change and health. In November the Commission plans to produce its White Paper on adapting to the adverse impacts of climate change, a dossier being led by DG Environment. In December the Commission then plans to turn from the general to the specific with a Communication on EU actions against the health consequences of climate change, led by DG SANCO.
The growing awareness by the public health community of the health challenges posed by climate change are like the negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change started in Bali this month. They both mark the start of a multi year process the scale of which is only beginning to emerge.