December 15, 2011

The Effects of Climate Change on Public Health

Guest post written by Cyndi Laurenti

With an estimated 5 million illnesses and 150,000 deaths annually attributed to climate change, studies have shown that a direct correlation between human health and climate change exists. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, the 1-degree increase in atmospheric temperature between 1975 and 2000 has caused nearly 160,000 annual deaths. While the quality of healthcare and its accessibility are also important factors that influence the net effect of climate change on human health, PhD doctorates would agree that overall warmer temperatures that induce heat waves -- which both escalate the occurrence of illnesses such as asthma and adversely affect aspects of civilization such as agriculture -- will potentially have a drastically negative impact on the quality of life.

One of the biggest
health risks associated with climate change is the increased prevalence of climate-specific diseases that were formerly centralized in specific regions but in the future may spread due to increased temperatures that consequently enable new habitation of insects and animals that serve as a hosts to infectious diseases. Chief among the diseases are dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever. Currently, these diseases are mostly treatable. However, as they become resistant to treatments, death rates will certainly increase. For malaria specifically, the increased risk of infection is expected to occur in Africa where treatment is both more expensive and health institutions are underdeveloped and underfunded healthcare system.

Another major long-term threat of climate change is related to
water levels. Concurrent with increasing temperatures are the rate of glacial melting, causing ocean expansion and rising sea levels which will “erode beaches, intensify flooding, and increase the salinity of rivers, bays, and groundwater tables.”  Additionally, many low-lying inhabited regions may be lost and coastal areas will be rendered more vulnerable to storm surges, further threatening a loss of life and compromised sanity with the spread of water-borne diseases.

In terms of agriculture, climate change will have both positive and negative effects. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Information Office, prolonged higher temperatures will offer the benefit of longer growing seasons with the possibility of completing more than one crop cycle. Also, previously formidable high latitude regions will be rendered arable due to overall warmer weather.
Conversely, in lower latitudes, higher temperatures risk increasing the rate of carbon dioxide released by plants, an occurrence that degrades the growth conditions for crops. Another consequence is the risk of a reduced availability of water and rapid soil erosion. Overall, though, the risks to agriculture and food availability as a result of climate change are ones that can be countered with technology such as engineering seeds to withstand drought-like conditions, as well as improved irrigation methods.

Climate change has been a natural consequence of human civilization. Though technological inventions in the past century have dramatically increased the rate of climate change, humans have the power to stunt the negative long-term impacts on health by taking proactive measures to not only reduce the rate of change today as well as prepare for its consequences tomorrow. In fact, with an acknowledgment of the dangers that exists and a proper timely response to both mute and reduce said dangers, even the World Health Organization suggests that many of the health risks faced today can be avoided.


While she figures out her next career move, Cyndi Laurenti works as an online writer and editor. Her primary interests are education, technology, and how to combine them. She enjoys the trees and beaches of the Pacific Northwest, and looking things up on other people's iPhones.