Climate Change: The Human Health Consequences

IETVCHANGES in the concentrations of greenhouse gases alter the global climate can bring about a myriad of human health consequences. The environmental consequences of climate change, such as extreme heat-waves, rising sea-levels, changes in precipitation that cause flooding and droughts, intense hurricanes, and degraded air quality, affect directly and indirectly the physical, social, and psychological health of humans.

Changes in precipitation are creating changes in the availability and quantity of water, as well as resulting in extreme weather events such as intense hurricanes and flooding.

Climate change may also drive disease migration; it may exacerbate health effects resulting from the release of toxic air pollutants in vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and those with asthma or cardiovascular disease.

Clearly, certain adverse health effects can be minimized or avoided with sound mitigation and adaptation strategies. Strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate change can prevent illness and death in people now; they can also protect the environment and health of future generations.

Mitigation refers to actions being taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to enhance the removal of carbon from the atmosphere. Adaptation refers to actions being taken to lessen the impact on health and the environment due to changes that cannot be prevented through mitigation. Appropriate mitigation and adaptation strategies will positively affect both climate change and the environment, and thereby positively affect human health. Some adaptation activities will directly improve human health through changes in our public health and health care infrastructure.

It is critical that adaptation and mitigation decisions and policies be developed with a sound basis in the best current science on climate change and its effects even though there still remain gaps in our understanding of the relationship between climate change, the environment, and human health.

Climate change is expected to affect air quality through the production and allergenicity of allergens and increase regional concentrations of ozone, fine particles, and dust. Some of these pollutants can directly cause respiratory disease or exacerbate existing conditions in susceptible populations, such as children or the elderly. Some of the impacts that climate change can have on air quality include:

Increased ground level ozone and fine particle concentrations, which can trigger a variety of reactions including chest pains, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion, as well as reduce lung function and cause inflammation of the lungs.

Increased carbon dioxide concentrations and temperatures, thereby amplifying the allergenicity of pollen and mould spores; increased precipitation in some areas leading to an increase in mould spores; increased rate of ozone formation due to higher temperatures and increased sunlight; increased frequency of droughts, leading to increased dust and particulate matter.

Mitigating contamination is important. Urban tree covers or rooftop gardens in urban settings help, as does decreasing the use of vehicle miles traveled to reduce ozone precursors. Utilizing alternative transportation options, such as walking or biking, which have the co-benefit of reducing emissions while increasing cardiovascular fitness and contributing to weight loss. However, these activities also have the potential to increase exposure to harmful outdoor air pollutants, particularly in urban areas.

Increasing the use of air conditioning can alleviate the health effects of exposure to chronic or acute heat. However, this can potentially result in higher greenhouse gas emissions depending on the method of power generation.

Developing and validating real-time remote sensing and other monitoring techniques to evaluate air quality, aeroallergens, aerosolized pathogens, dust burdens, and other climate-sensitive exposures directly linked to asthma and airway diseases will help us to understand the impact of climate change on air quality.

Cop 21 must succeed where others have failed. We must cap the rise in temperature at 1.5 degrees Celsius or we will perish, which is why we have adopted the motto “1point5tostayalive”: 1.5 to stay alive! For more videos in this series, watch our television channel.

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