There is nothing quite like a natural disaster to concentrate the mind. But while most media focus on the recent Superstorm Sandy was on the immediate loss of life and property damage, little attention is paid to the effect of natural disasters on people’s long-term health.
This lack of public awareness is at odds with increasing concern among health professionals about the impacts that climate change will have on the ability of human beings across the world to enjoy healthy lives.
Environmental health comprises those aspects of human health, including quality of Life, that are determined by physical, chemical, biological, social, and psychological factors in the environment. It also refers to the theory and practice of assessing, correcting, controlling, and preventing those factors in the environment that can potentially affect adversely the health of present and future generations.
Climate change endangers human health, affecting all sectors of society, both domestically and globally. It also has major implications for our health and wellbeing. We are a nation increasingly vulnerable to climate change.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy there has been a significant increase in the number of Americans who strongly agree that climate change makes extreme weather worse, as evidenced by polling done immediately before and after the disaster. And a robust majority of Americans understand that Sandy, in particular, was made worse by climate change.
Climate change is here and its impacts are being felt today. As Governor Cuomo said, “Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality.”
But, climate change isn’t just about rising sea levels and heat waves. Climate change is already affecting the nation’s public health, according to a new multi-agency report released by the Obama administration. It urges federal agencies to adapt their research and policies to limit future suffering. Effects of climate change on health will affect most populations in the next decades and put the lives and wellbeing of billions of people at increased risk.
The range of potential threats to health posed by climate change has never been clearer. The weather has a direct impact on our health. If the overall climate becomes warmer, there will be an increase in health problems.
Health is essential to the quality of life and is viewed by many as a fundamental human right. While self-destructive behavior such as cigarette smoking may involve an informed choice (at least today when the risks are well-known), ‘‘second-hand smoke’’ inhaled by nonsmokers has been viewed as a violation of the human right to health. In fact, this involuntary exposure has been the driving force behind legislation banning smoking in the workplace and other public settings. Climate change is an environmental hazard operating at the global scale, posing a unique and ‘‘involuntary exposure’’ to many societies, and therefore represents one of the largest health inequities of our time, and, unlike some others, is threatening to increase even more.
Health includes physical, social and psychological well- being. Population health is a primary goal of sustainable development. Human beings are exposed to climate change through changing weather patterns (for example more intense and frequent extreme events) and indirectly though changes in water, air, food quality and quantity, ecosystems, agriculture, livelihoods and infrastructure. These direct and indirect exposures can cause death, disability and suffering. Ill- health increases vulnerability and reduces the capacity of individuals and groups to adapt to climate change. Populations with high rates of disease and debility cope less successfully with stress.
Indirectly, changes in weather pattern, can lead to ecological disturbances, changes in food production levels, increase in the distribution of malaria, and other vector-borne diseases. Fluctuation in the climate especially in the temperature, precipitation, and humidity can influence biological organisms and the processes linked to the spread of infectious diseases.
“Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century … the impacts will be felt all around the world — and not just in some distant future but in our lifetimes and those of our children.”
Climate change is one of the most serious public health threats facing the nation, but few people are aware of how it can affect them. Science shows that climate change will affect human health across the world. From diminished air quality and degradation of food and water supplies to increasing levels of allergens and catastrophic weather events, we will experience a number of worsening health threats during our lifetimes.
The effects of climate change on health are inextricably linked to global development policy and concerns for health equity. Climate change should catalyse the drive to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and to expedite development in the poorest countries.
Nowhere in history do we find a religion more oriented around nature than in ancient Egypt. This was accomplished with subtle exaggeration and distortion. Thus, Egyptian artists were equally precise when depicting the details of either the inner and outer world, and they were remarkably adept at revealing that these logically incompatible worlds constitute a single seamless reality.
Climate change also raises the issue of intergenerational justice. The inequity of climate change—with the rich causing most of the problem and the poor initially suffering most of the consequences—will prove to be a source of historical shame to our generation if nothing is done to address it. Raising health status and reducing health inequity will only be reached by lifting billions out of poverty.
Modernization over the last 200 years has disconnected humanity from the idea that, regenerating natures resources is essential for human survival and economic prosperity. Reconnecting Humans with Nature is the cultural aspect of the agenda for moving towards delivering integrated solutions to climate change, depletion of natural resources and human development.
Most of the dire warnings about climate change have focused on costs from damage to ecosystems, loss of habitat, and damage to property from freak weather patterns; fires, storms, floods and so on. There hasn’t been much attention given to the effect on the long-term health of populations.
But, the potential health effects of climate change are immense. And, management of those health issues is an enormous challenge. It requires an integrated and holistic political response that is vital for good social, economic, and ethical reasons.
“This is a problem with a human face,” said Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist in the Health and Environment Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Our prior notions about climate change damage without these costs included have been vastly underestimated.”
“These numbers are big,” Knowlton said, “and it’s important that we begin to think about and address these health costs and what climate change is likely to mean for people’s health.”
Unlike health threats caused by a particular toxin or disease pathogen, there are many ways that climate change can lead to potentially harmful health effects. There are direct health impacts from heat waves and severe storms, ailments caused or exacerbated by air pollution and airborne allergens, and many climate-sensitive infectious diseases.
Climate change will affect health directly through a complex set of interdependent interactions. Regional weather changes in temperature, sea level, precipitation, and extreme weather events will cause downstream effects on the environment that lead to adverse health effects. The epidemiological outcome of climate change on disease patterns worldwide will be profound.
If physicians want evidence of climate change, they may well find it in their own offices. Patients are presenting with illnesses that once happened only in warmer areas. Chronic conditions are becoming aggravated by more frequent and extended heat waves. Allergy and asthma seasons are getting longer. Spates of injuries are resulting from more intense ice storms and snowstorms. Scientific evidence shows that the world’s climate is changing and that the results have public health consequences.
Climate change is hardly a physician-only concern. However, doctors may find themselves on the front lines in dealing with its serious and immediate problems. Patients are sicker or developing new conditions as a result of changes in the weather. Greater awareness and understanding of the situation, from a medical perspective, is a proper priority.
“We want our kids to grow up in an America that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” the president said in his victory speech. Obama has one more shot to leave a powerful green legacy and lead the world in turning back the catastrophic effects of global warming.
Management of the health effects of climate change will require inputs from all sectors of government and civil society, collaboration between many academic disciplines, and new ways of international cooperation that have hitherto eluded us.
A new advocacy and public health movement is needed urgently to bring together governments, international agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), com- munities, and academics from all disciplines to adapt to the effects of climate change on health.
Understanding how climate change is going to affect our health is going to help us choose adaptation strategies and mitigations that not only alleviate or prevent some effects of climate change, but will also potentially enhance human health.
The clock is already ticking on Obama’s second chance to turn the tide on climate change, because four years is just an evolutionary blink.
Live and Learn. We All Do.
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