Health and climate change
'Climate change endangers health in fundamental ways. The warming of the planet will be gradual, but the effects of extreme weather events – more storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves – will be abrupt and acutely felt. Both trends can affect some of the most fundamental determinants of health: air, water, food, shelter, and freedom from disease'
Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organisation 7 April 2008
The impacts of climate change for human health
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted a wide range of implications for human health worldwide as a result of climate change. Climate variability and change cause death and disease through natural disasters, such as heatwaves, floods and droughts. In addition, many vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue, as well as other major killers such as malnutrition and diarrhoea, are highly sensitive to changing temperatures and precipitation. Climate change already contributes to the global burden of disease, and this contribution is expected to grow in the future.
The impacts of climate on human health will not be evenly distributed around the world. Developing country populations, particularly in Small Island States, arid and high mountain zones, and in densely populated coastal areas, are considered to be particularly vulnerable. But in the UK we will also face health impacts from climate change.
Effective implementation of existing health programmes and interventions will help reduce the health risks from climate change. But the most effective and reliable way to tackle the climate-change associated health risks is through action to tackle the causes of man-made climate change.
The impacts of climate change for health in the United Kingdom
The potential impacts of climate change on human health in the UK are multiple and diverse. Hotter drier summers, milder wetter winters, and more frequent extreme weather events such as flooding and heatwaves, as described in the UKCP09 scenarios, could mean, in summary:
- A decrease in cold-related winter deaths and an increase in heat-related summer deaths. An estimated 35,000 people died across northern Europe in the 2003 heatwave
- Increased cases of sun-burn and skin cancer if people spend more time in the sun
- Injuries and death caused by extreme weather-related event
- Heatwave-related health impacts, dehydration etc
- Increased exposure to biting insects and vector-borne diseases
- Increased allergic conditions with extended pollen seasons and changing pollen distribution
- View other impacts at the World Health Organization's 10 facts on climate and health
Climate change is already happening and it will take time to influence the factors that cause it. In the meantime, we must plan to adapt to its effects. The Department of Health (DH) has published with the Health Protection Agency on the 'Health Effects of Climate Change in the UK, 2008' sets out the various health effects facing the UK from climate change. DH has also developed a National Heatwave Plan with a traffic light 'Heat-Health Watch' system, which contains guidance for the health and social care sector on protecting vulnerable people from the effects of heat and on how local authorities can keep urban areas cool.
International action to address health and climate change
- At the World Health Assembly in 2008 the 193 member states of the World Health Organisation unanimously passed a resolution drawing attention to implications of climate change for health, recognising that climate change has the potential to jeopardise the achievement of the health-related Millennium Development Goals, and calling for urgent action.
- The Health Ministers of the 53 Commonwealth countries focused on the risks from climate change at their annual meeting in Geneva on 17 May 2009. In a message to Commonwealth Heads of Government, they called on the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December 2009 to forge strong post-2012 international climate change arrangements that will support the smallest, poorest and most vulnerable regions, including small island states, and underpin effective mitigation and adaptation to reduce the potential health impacts of climate change on health and development.
Win-win climate and health policies
Policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions may also deliver health benefits. For example, changes to transport systems have the potential to reduce the health impacts of urban air pollution and physical inactivity. Housing insulation may reduce deaths from both cold and heat, and in poor countries, reduce the need for burning of biomass fuels and the impacts of indoor air pollution.
Health and Copenhagen
'Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century' - The Lancet, 16 May 2009
Securing an ambitious climate change deal at Copenhagen will have significant benefits for human and environmental health for generations to come.
'Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century' The Lancet, 16 May 2009
Forum for the Future and the NHS Sustainable Development Unit have set out their plans for a low carbon national health service in a new paper, 'Fit for the Future'
The Health Practitioner’s Guide to Climate Change, a book detailing the health impacts of climate change, is launched in London.
Launch event on 25th November of findings from study to investigate health impacts of greenhouse gas reduction strategies
NHS Carbon Reduction Strategy
Find out how the NHS Sustainable Development Unit aims to make the NHS an exemplar low emission organisation
Follow Act on Copenhagen's updates towards negotiations in Copenhagen
Latest news from Act on Copenhagen
January 2010: Act on Copenhagen website comes to an end
January 2010: UN’s Jan 31 deadline sees 60+ countries submit
December 2009: Two intense weeks’ negotiation follow from two years of talks
November 2009: Commonwealth urges climate deal
October 2009: Major Economies Forum outcomes show doable
September 2009: Milibands stress 'Copenhagen: in the balance'
Act on CO2
Practical tips on what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint
Twitter for trees
United Nations Environment Programme will plant one tree for every follower on Twitter. Tweet Pls RT #t4t