In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it seems an appropriate moment to re-examine the issue of climate change and its impacts on human health. For those who get their information on climate change from the news alone, it would be easy to assume that it is still unclear whether human activity is contributing to it. One frequently sees newspaper columns that dismiss the science related to climate change and news articles which imply that there is still considerable debate around the contribution of humans to it. But that debate is over and has been for years. In 2007, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report in which it confirmed, with 90 per cent certainty, that the world’s climate is warming and that human activity has had a discernible influence on many physical and biological systems (IPCC, 2007a; IPCC, 2007b).
The IPCC report on the physical sciences found that levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere have increased from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 379 ppm over the last 200 years; an astounding increase when one considers that CO2 levels ranged between 180 and 300 ppm for the past 650,000 years. The IPCC also concluded that, even if immediate and aggressive action were taken to freeze emissions at 2000 levels, a 2 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures is “locked in” for the next two decades because of “carbon feedback cycles” (IPCC, 2007a).
Climate change is expected to: Increase the average temperature around the planet; Increase the temperature of ocean waters; Melt the polar ice cap and increase sea levels; Change the ocean currents; and Increase the frequency and/or severity of extreme weather events (IPCC, 2007a).
In Ontario, climate change is expected to affect human health by: Increasing the frequency and severity of heat waves; Increasing the frequency and severity of smog episodes; Increasing the frequency of extreme weather events including snow storms, floods and tornadoes; Increasing the risk of insect-borne diseases such as Lyme’s Disease and West Nile Virus; and Increasing the risk of water-borne diseases (Lemmen et al., 2008).
At a global level, climate change is expected to have profound impacts on the health of whole populations in regions around the world.The IPCC concluded that projected climate change is likely to affect the health status of millions of people, particularly those who live in countries that have little adaptive capacity, from: Increases in malnutrition and related disorders; Increased deaths, disease and injury due to heat waves, floods, storms, fires and droughts; The increased burden of diarraheal disease; The increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone that result from climate change; and The altered spatial distribution of some infectious disease vectors such as mosquitoes and ticks (IPCC, 2007b)
Africa is considered one of the most vulnerable continents because of multiple stresses and low adaptive capacity. Most continents are expected to experience decreases in fresh water supplies. Coastal areas around the world are at increased risk from flooding. Malaria is expected to shrink in range in some areas of the world in response to droughts, while cholera is expected to increase in others in response to increasing water temperatures. Europe and North America are expected to experience more flooding and more heat waves (IPCC, 2007b).
In 2006, Sir Nicholas Stern, former economist to the World Bank, led a study for the British Government which estimated that it would take about 1 per cent of the annual global Gross Domestic Product to fund the programs needed to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere below 550 ppm – the level required to limit global temperature increases between 2 and 3 degree Celsius. The study also found that failure to make this investment could result in climate change impacts that would result in a 5 to 20 per cent loss in the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The study concluded that these impacts could create economic and social disruptions on a scale similar to those experienced during the great wars or the depression (Stern, 2006).
Hurricane Sandy left a path of death, dislocation and destruction. The cost of repairs is estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars. Let us hope that it is seen as a wake-up call for those governments, politicians and journalists who have failed to take the science of climate change seriously.
Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director (Volunteer), Creating Healthy and Sustainable Environments (CHASE) Kim Perrotta/LinkedIn
- International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), (2007a). Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis – Summary for Policy Makers.
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2007b). Summary for Policymakers. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. Prepared by ML Parr, OF Canziani, et al. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK: 2007. (22 pages)
- Lemmen, Donald, Fiona Warren, Jacinthe Lacroix, Elizabeth Bush (editors). (2008). From Impacts to Adaptation: Canada in a Changing Climate 2007. Ontario Chapter led by Quentin Chiotti and Beth Lavender. Government of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario. (448 pages)
- Stern, Sir Nicholas. (2006). Stern Review of Economics and Climate Change. HM Treasury: October 2006.
- Excerpts from: Perrotta, 2012. Public Health and Land Use Planning: How Ten Public Health Units are Working to Create Healthy and Sustainable Communities. Prepared for the Clean Air Partnership (CAP). 230 pages.