Climate Change and Human Health: Estimating Avoidable Deaths and Disease

Authors

  • R. Sari Kovats,

    Corresponding author
      Address correspondence to R. Sari Kovats, Centre on Global Change and Health, Department of Public Health and Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK; tel: +44 (0)20 7927 2962; sari.kovats@lshtm.ac.uk.
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      Centre on Global Change and Health, Department of Public Health and Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK.
  • Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum,

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      Department for the Protection of the Human Environment, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.
  • Franziska Matthies

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      Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK. Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Address correspondence to R. Sari Kovats, Centre on Global Change and Health, Department of Public Health and Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK; tel: +44 (0)20 7927 2962; sari.kovats@lshtm.ac.uk.

Abstract

Human population health has always been central in the justification for sustainable development but nearly invisible in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations. Current scientific evidence indicates that climate change will contribute to the global burden of disease through increases in diarrhoeal disease, vector-borne disease, and malnutrition, and the health impacts of extreme weather and climate events. A few studies have estimated future potential health impacts of climate change but often generate little policy-relevant information. Robust estimates of future health impacts rely on robust projections of future disease patterns. The application of a standardized and established methodology has been developed to quantify the impact of climate change in relation to different greenhouse gas emission scenarios. All health risk assessments are necessarily biased toward conservative best-estimates of health effects that are easily measured. Global, regional, and national risk assessments can take no account of irreversibility, or plausible low-probability events with potentially very high burdens on human health. There is no “safe limit” of climate change with respect to health impacts as health systems in some regions do not adequately cope with the current climate variability. Current scientific methods cannot identify global threshold health effects in order for policymakers to regulate a “tolerable” amount of climate change. We argue for the need for more research to reduce the potential impacts of climate change on human health, including the development of improved methods for quantitative risk assessment. The large uncertainty about the future effects of climate change on human population health should be a reason to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and not a reason for inaction.

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