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Climate Change Threatening Health And Welfare

May 15, 2011

A new book, “Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about,” suggests that climate change is a threat to more than just the environment, also blaming it for the spread of infectious diseases and respiratory ailments around the world and contributing to thousands of deaths through heat waves and other extreme weather events.

Dan Ferber and Dr. Paul Epstein, the authors of the new book published by University of California Press, said climate change has even fueled recent revolts in the Middle East and North Africa.

Ferber, a science journalist, and Epstein, Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, say the health of humans is directly linked to how communities, nations, and global population respond to the growing climate threat.

The two authors told Reuters Health Thursday that diseases such as malaria Lyme disease, and cholera, as well as food shortages and malnutrition, are becoming increased risks with steadily rising temperatures.

They authors said getting out of the hole we dug for ourselves will take a global effort. That effort may be led by a surprising player: industry.

“Changing finance is a critical part of … rewriting the rules” on climate management, said Epstein. For the financial industry, there is a lot at stake.

“With the uptake in extreme events — particularly as it’s affecting food security globally and food prices — we’re going to see a renewed interest on the part of the investors and insurers in the stability of society,” he said. Already, “the financial industry has at times in the last several decades been acutely aware of the dangers and risks of climate change.”

Climate change is hitting human health — and political and social stability — from all sides, Epstein and Ferber said. Many of those impacts are hidden from view on a day-to-day basis.

They said that even a slight increase in temperature can broaden the habitat of pests that cause infectious diseases, from malaria in Kenya to Lyme disease in Maine.

And Epstein said the claim that regions already overwhelmed by disease will just shift, rather than expand, isn’t a helpful outlook because it misses other key points.

For an example: Parts of Honduras have become too hot for malaria-carrying mosquitoes to thrive.

“But it’s been so dry and hot that the people have moved as well, and they’ve moved into the northern area, into the forest, where there’s plenty of malaria,” Epstein explained.

Another result of climate change are asthma and allergies magnified because of heat and carbon dioxide, especially in cities where more and more children are developing respiratory problems.

And heat waves and droughts not only cause immediate local health crises, but also threatens global public health by destroying crops and driving up food costs, Epstein and Ferber added.

But probably the most pressing issue is the availability of food, or lack there of.

“Our food, our air, our water, these are the issues that really underlie our public health,” Epstein told Reuters Health. “These are the life support systems. These are the ones that ultimately are most critical and most sensitive to climate instability.”

An unstable climate is directly linked to social and political instability. “I think we’re looking at increasing damages and social disruption from the climate instability and extremes,” explained Epstein. “The earth itself can go to a new equilibrium, but we need to back off. We’re pushing it hard.”

Although, Ferber pointed out that there is not all bad news. There is reason to be hopeful that we might be at a turning point in terms of accepting and addressing climate change. He explained that some companies have already figured out ways to profit and grow by switching to climate-friendly plans and programs.

For example, the re-insurance company Swiss Re realized that it could insure wind farms at a lower premium than oil rigs, since entire wind farms are not as likely to be harmed by disasters, Ferber noted.

“That benefited the company, and it also benefited the wind farm developers,” said Ferber. “This kind of creative thinking in the financial world can lead to win-win solutions.”

Another example is Stonyfield Farm. That company has figured out how to turn environmental protection into a business strategy, such as by using microbes to ferment some of its dairy waste — which eliminates the cost of shipping waste elsewhere to be treated. Stonyfield’s yogurt revenue now tops Kraft’s, according to the authors.

Ferber said communities can also take steps to make their streets, businesses and homes more climate-healthy. Planting trees, installing bike lanes and green roofs, and funding projects to help residents green their homes are all practical measures that communities can together make happen and make a difference, he suggested.

Epstein said that time is running out for the world to start taking these steps that will show positive changes. Humans need to dramatically decrease the use of fossil fuels and wood burning “in order to give the climate a chance to re-stabilize at a level that would be viable” for environmental and human health.

“People across this country are realizing that we have a real problem on our hands,” Ferber told Reuters. “I am actually optimistic that more and more people are starting to deal with that reality and say, ‘what solutions can we come up with to deal with this problem?’”

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