Climate: the biggest health issue of all

The “clear and present danger” of climate change poses the biggest health threat of the 21st century, according to a UK study. A Hobart seminar explores the ramifications for rural Tasmania. [2 June 2009 | Peter Boyer]

Money, love, family, occupation… these are staples on anyone’s list of crucial influences on their lives. But thinking about it, if we were asked to nominate a single life-changer we’d almost certainly give top billing to health – or the lack of it.

We manage to meet most needs in our lives – finding a partner, getting an income, raising children, socialising, travelling, contributing to our community – so long as we’re in reasonably good nick.

Without the independence that comes with good health, the demands will start to take over our lives. If we lose our well-being over a long period, due to an accident or a chronic ailment or a sick environment, the demands become impossible to meet, and we need outside help.

So when a commission of leading medical researchers from University College London (UCL) assesses how global environmental changes affect health and concludes that climate change will present the biggest threat to human health this century, we’d be wise not to ignore it.

We should be especially alert to the commission’s advice that policy-makers and health-care professionals have not yet grasped the scale of the threat to human health presented by our carbon emissions and the resultant global warming.

A couple of weeks ago, the results of the UCL study were published in the leading medical journal The Lancet. The lead author, Professor Anthony Costello, warned that climate changes associated with global warming posed a “clear and present danger” to billions of people, and that a new global public health movement was needed to deal with it.

It’s timely that Tasmanians concerned about this pressing question will have the opportunity to hear from health and climate research specialists at an all-day community forum in Hobart this week organised by the University of Tasmania’s Rural Health Department.

The free public forum, to be addressed by climate and health specialists, will focus on health challenges for rural Tasmania, but the implications apply to all of us, wherever we live.

As convener Dr Erica Bell put it, the forum seeks to present the evidence of how climate change will affect our health, and to “translate the climate change research into practical understandings” to guide medical people, politicians and people generally in meeting this growing challenge.

The forum will respond to key questions about the health needs of rural Tasmania, including:

• How is climate change affecting water resources, agriculture, forests and marine environments?

• How will climate change affect the health of rural Tasmanians, and what do we need to do?

• What educational and social changes does rural Tasmania need to better respond to climate change?

• What are the implications for government and administration of rural Tasmania?

There’s no need for Tasmanians to feel powerless in the face of this adversity. We are relatively well-placed to meet rising health demands. Our moist, temperate climate and small population keep potential difficulties to a more manageable scale than most parts of the world.

As Dr Bell points out, we are home to world-leading climate-change researchers, which means “we can be optimistic about our capacity to develop sound evidence-based policy for climate change.” We have the capacity. All we need is the will – and then the action.

• “Climate Change and Rural Tasmania” is on this Friday, June 5, at Stanley Burbury Theatre, Churchill Avenue, Sandy Bay, from 9.30 am to 5 pm. To reserve a place, phone 62267375.

“A clear and present danger”

“Climate change is a health issue affecting billions of people, not just an environmental issue about polar bears and deforestation,” UCL–Lancet lead author Professor Anthony Costello warns. “The impacts will be felt not just in some distant future but in our lifetimes and those of our children.”

Among the study’s sobering warnings:

• Health systems throughout the world face growing pressures from heat and hygiene-related ailments. Hotter summers and greater incidence of flooding will increase the spread of pathogens and facilitate a shift into currently temperate regions of tropical diseases like malaria and dengue fever. The higher the global mean temperature, the greater the health risks.

• Food and water security will present increasing threats to the well-being of human populations, raising potentially devastating geopolitical issues which may culminate in mass migration and loss of government authority.

• Global warming will increase the gap between rich and poor peoples, and presents a glaring moral problem: the health of those with least resources — those who have done least to cause global warming — will be hit hardest by its impact.

• The health lobby has only recently come to the issue of climate change, and needs to say and do more, and to confront policy-makers with the need for urgent action to reduce emissions and address health-care inequalities around the world.

The UCL commission said the most crucial political development needed was world-wide unity in the face of a universal threat. Health professionals needed to combine with policy-makers and other practitioners to ensure the best practical outcomes for as many people as possible.

The commission had some good news: low-carbon lifestyles can radically improve the health of people by reducing the incidence of stress, diabetes, heart and lung disease, and obesity – facts to be brought before this December’s crucial Copenhagen climate change meeting.

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