Climate Change and why it’s the Greatest Threat to Human Health in History

Climate change is the most systematic threat to humankind

It’s not civil wars or nuclear weapons that pose the greatest threat to humankind – its climate change, according to UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres.

A recent international survey in the Lancet reveals that many more people will be exposed to adverse weather conditions over the next century than initially anticipated – “a potentially tragic risk to human health” that could countermand decades of global health progress.

The WHO projects that climate change will cause about 250,000 additional deaths annually between 2030 and 2050: 60,000 due to malaria, 48,000 to diarrhea, 38,000 to exposure to heat among the elderly and 95,000 to undernourishment of children. According to WHO, there will also be an increase in cases of allergies, vector borne diseases, respiratory & cardiovascular diseases and seasonal disease as a result of climate change.

Although health may seem to relate mostly to prudent behavior, occupation, heredity, healthcare access, and local environment exposures, sustained population health needs life-supporting “services” of the biosphere. All animal species rely on water and food supplies, freedom from overly infectious disease, and most importantly, physical safety and comfort that comes from climatic stability.

But today, human activities are altering the global climate. We’re raising the concentration of energy-trapping gases in the atmosphere, subsequently intensifying the natural “greenhouse effect” that supports life on earth. These greenhouse gases include mainly carbon dioxide (from forest burning and fossil fuel combustion), methane (from animal husbandry, irrigated agriculture, and oil extraction), nitrous oxide among other human-made halocarbons.

Impacts on health

Climate change would influence the way ecosystems and their member species function. It would also affect human health. Surprisingly, some of these effects would be beneficial, like milder winters would reduce deaths that happen in temperate regions. Hot regions too will have a minimized viability of disease-transmitting insect populations. But in general, scientists consider that most of the climate change impacts would be adverse.

In fact, changes in climate have already influenced some health outcomes. A World Health Report 2002 by WHO estimated that in 2000, climate change was responsible for about 6% of malaria in some regions and 2.4% of global diarrhea.

Some apparent changes in human health may include alterations in the geographic range (altitude and latitude) and seasonality of some infectious illnesses including food-borne diseases like salmonellosis and vector-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria. Additionally, warmer average temperatures coupled with enhanced climatic variability would change the exposure pattern to thermal extremes and subsequent health effects in both winter and summer.

The 2014 NCA’s Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) projection estimates an average global temperature rise of 5.2% in 2100. In the US, temperature increase for this case is in the 2°F-3°F range for 2021-2050.

Other projected changes in climate in the US;

  • More spring and winter precipitation for the Northern US and less for the Southwest
  • Increases in intensity and frequency of extreme rainfall for all US areas
  • Seasonal droughts are projected to intensify in most US regions. Long-term droughts are expected to increase in large areas of the southwest, Southeast and southern Great Plains. Patterns in the reduced ground and surface water in many regions will continue, increasing the chances of water shortages for many people
  • Heat waves are expected to intensify across the US
  • Rainfall rates and hurricane associated storm are expected to increase as the climate continues to warm

For many people, climate change is a matter of national concern and that it has nothing to do with an average person. They believe that it’s too big a subject that requires the attention of heads of states, organizations and other governmental bodies. This is a misconception. Although governments can affect policies, we also have skin in the game and can be the change we want to see in the globe.

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Shilpashree Nandan

Shilpashree is the member, author, and contributor of Nature Talkies.

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