Climate change and human health – inequities demand win-win solutions

One of Australia’s leading authorities on the ramifications of climate change for human health and welfare is Prof Tony McMichael from the Australian National University. Earlier this year he and three co-authors published an important review in the British Medical Journal entitled “Global environmental change and health: impacts, inequalities, and the health sector” [full text available as open access]. The core points were this:

  • The biophysical and ecological systems of the natural environment are fundamental to human health
  • Mounting human pressures on the environment are disrupting and depleting these systems
  • The resulting health risks will particularly affect vulnerable and poorly resourced populations
  • Adaptive strategies can lessen current and impending health risks
  • Health professionals are well placed to contribute to adaptive and preventive strategies

Importantly, this essay by McMichael and colleagues serves to emphasise the inextricable link between human well being and ‘environmental health’. As I have described in other blog posts, humans are rapidly degrading the Earth’s natural capital, via the synergies of climate change, tropical deforestation and changed land use, diversion of freshwater flows, pollution and exhaustion of soils through intensive agriculture.

These critical drivers of global change were reviewed in detail by the little-cited, yet incredibly important, 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – the ecological equivalent of the Intergovernmental Assessment on Climate Change Assessment Report. The key point that I believe needs to be far more widely appreciated is this – without its planetary life support system intact, humanity’s health – be it the health of individuals, societies or global economies – will be severely and perhaps irreparably compromised during this century and beyond.

This is a topic hot on the agenda (pardon the pun) of world governments at present. Indeed, I was in Malaysia last week to give the plenary address at the inaugural Asia Pacific Health Ministers’ Conference On Climate Change and Health. These folks are taking this issue extremely seriously — the Asia-Pacific region stands to lose plenty from even the amount of committed warming and associated impacts we have in the pipeline, let along a future of near-unmitigated emissions for decades to come.

In short, if environmental concerns continue to be neglected in the short-term myopic pursuit of ‘growth at all costs’, then a future world will inevitably be a far nastier, more hostile and less biologically rich one in which to live.

By this, I should clarify, I mean ‘development’ that is predicated on the back of exponentially growing depletion or degradation of natural capital (ecosystems, soils, ground water, oceans, etc.) and ‘hard’ resources (coal, oil, gas, tar sands, oil shales, mineral phosphate, etc.) – the kind Malthus and the Club of Rome saw as unsustainable. Clever, tech savvy growth (renewable energy, computer power and virtual worlds, information exchange, knowledge services, etc.), on the other hand, is potentially nearly limitless (well, things get difficult to predict once you’ve moved beyond Dyson Spheres).

Convergent solutions which fix multiple crises. Win-win scenarios. That’s what we must be aiming for.

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5 Comments

  1. Pingback: Global Warming » Climate change and human health - inequities demand win-win solutions

  2. I guess it’s still a question if they found him or he found them (the “think-tanks”). He was pretty angry with the IPCC so I can see how he might be easily motivated to “join up”. Has anyone countered his views on malaria and climate?

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  3. No one disagrees with Reiter that the geographical range of Plasmodium, or other tropical blood parasites and arboviruses, is constrained by more than just climate. But Reiter takes a very narrow view – that because malarial distribution is controlled by multiple factors and its realised niche is narrower than its presumed fundamental niche, ergo additional temperature warming will be relatively unimportant in determining whether it spreads. But this is far too simplistic. Rainfall distribution and intensity and seasonal availability of standing water are just two further factors which control mosquito population distribution. Both will also be altered by climate change, including via sea level changes which will create more inundated coastal areas which provide prime mosquito breeding habitat. Hence the synergy of these factors is strongly suspected to increase the prevalence of tropical disease under global warming, especially in areas where contact with dense human populations is most regular.

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