Today is World Health Day, a day when the World Health Organization tries to get the international community to focus attention on major issues in public health. This year, the WHO is narrowing in on vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and Lyme disease. These illnesses, which are responsible for huge amounts of mortality worldwide, are already being influenced by climate change.
Warming temperatures are responsible for expanding the range of many vectors, particularly the mosquitos that transmit malaria and dengue. Increased rainfall is also multiplying breeding grounds for mosquitos. Meanwhile, warmer temperatures are being connected to increases in tick numbers across the United States. If unchecked, climate change will make the burden of these diseases a lot heavier than it already is. Generally the poor, the weak, and children are the most vulnerable to vector borne diseases.
Greenpeace agrees with the WHO that vector borne diseases are a major environmental issue of our time, exposing that no matter what we do to our surroundings, we never really exist outside of ecosystems. Even many of the solutions to vector/human conflict will be environmental in nature — from improved farming and irrigation practices, to managing wetlands, to smart planning in settlements and cities.
However, one of the major things that vector-borne diseases brings into focus for Greenpeace is how so many environmental and human challenges of our time are, in some way, connected to climate change. Human health writ large will be heavily and directly determined by a changing climate, in many more ways than an increase in vector borne diseases. The World Health Organization estimates that since the 1970s, climate change has already been responsible for about 140,000 deaths per year. That number is only rising.
Below is a short list of the various ways human health will continue to be affected by climate change in the years to come.
1. Reduced Air Quality. Rising temperatures will lead to more and more days with high levels of ozone, a major element of smog. The drivers of climate change, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, also lead to higher levels of particulate matter in the atmosphere. Some of these, especially particles smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5), are particularly dangerous to human health in both short-term and long-term exposures. Small enough to enter the bloodstream, PM2.5 is connected to a variety of diseases, including pneumonia, chronic heart and lung diseases, and cancer. It is highly correlated with early mortality.
2. Along with vector borne and air-related diseases, scientists agree that climate change is certain to increase the incidence of waterborne diseases. These illnesses, spread through pathogens and parasites in drinking water, include a host of diarrheal diseases, cholera, and the effects of E. coli. Many waterborne diseases are actually the effects of increased fecal matter in water sources.
With more rainfall, higher temperatures of fresh water and seawater, and reduced availability of clean water in drought stricken areas, waterborne diseases are expected to become far more common. This is not only true where climate change is creating refugees and crowding among the global poor. Already, US cities and towns are witnessing increases in incidence of waterborne diseases, with problems expected to be especially worse in cities that have sewer systems that carry stormwater runoff and sewage in the same pipes.
3. Child Mortality on the rise. Pneumonia, waterborne diseases that cause diarrhea, and malaria are the three leading causes of death for children between the ages of one and five, a problem particularly stubborn in the poorest regions on the planet. Without an effective world response to their certain escalation, climate change will be catastrophic for the world’s most youngest, most vulnerable people.
4. Droughts, food scarcity, and hunger will result from generally increased temperatures. As drought seems to become a trend worldwide, agriculture and food security will be threatened. This will be a major problem in places where hunger is already rampant. However drought has already had major impacts in American farming. In a country where millions of people are going hungry (including one in five children), questions about the resilience of our food system in an era of widespread drought are not out of bounds.
5. Heat waves will also have huge impacts on human health. As historic European heat waves in 2003 and 2013 show, general rises in temperature will be accompanied by short term pulses of extreme heat that will take heavy tolls. The heat wave in 2003 is estimated to have been responsible for about 35,000 deaths across the European continent.
6. We will all have to adapt to the new normal of increasingly severe extreme weather events. As Superstorm Sandy did for people along the north Atlantic coast, and as Supertyphoon Haiyan did for coastal residents in the Phlllipines, monumental, deadly storms are wreaking havoc on communities across the globe. It is a dangerous mistake to not see the intrinsic connection between weather events and human health.
7. As resource scarcity becomes more common, increased violent conflict will likely be the result. As a study in Nature showed, violent conflict has historically been connected with climate conditions. Climate change-based conflict is already beginning to pop up in water scarce regions, and some have speculated that the war in Syria has some roots in climate change. It is scary to think that as resources become more difficult to come by, how many more people will be taken up by violence. As Rebecca Solnit recently noted, climate change can be seen as violence in and of itself.