Climate change affects more than just the ice caps…
It is easy, and perhaps more comfortable, to think about climate change in terms of its impact on the physical environment only, happening in the future and affecting somewhere distant: the icecaps will melt, sea level rise will dampen low lying islands, and heatwaves and droughts will worsen in already hot and dry countries. Observations, however, make it clear that impacts of human induced climate change are happening now and are affecting physical, biological and human systems in all regions of the world. But what is less obvious, and perhaps more important, are the many ways in which these changes are impacting human health, infrastructure, biodiversity, our water environment, and industries such as agriculture and forestry here in the UK. These risks are summarised very nicely in a recent report from the UK Committee on Climate Change.
Direct and indirect effects
Rising temperatures and more frequent and/or intense extreme weather events cost lives directly, particularly those of the most vulnerable – our children, the elderly and the infirm – but they also impact the ability of emergency services to respond.
Indeed, in a recent letter to health secretary Jeremy Hunt, the newly-formed UK Health Alliance on Climate Change stressed that more work is urgently needed to prepare healthcare personnel, systems and facilities for the impacts of climate change, pointing out, by way of example, that almost 10% of health care buildings in England are currently operating in flood risk zones.
Emissions of short-lived climate pollutants, such as ozone, methane and black carbon, besides producing a strong warming effect, also have a direct effect on human health (particularly heart and lung disease), contributing to more than 7 million premature deaths annually that are linked to air pollution. Increased occurrence of, and human exposure to, air pollution is also expected from climate change. For example, higher temperatures may increase local peak levels of ozone and particulate matter, while a weakening of atmospheric circulation will reduce the dispersion of all pollutants, also acting to increase their local concentration.
But the indirect effects of climate change on health extend beyond the influence of weather on air pollution. For example, climate change can reduce access to and the quality of freshwater, reduce agricultural and aquacultural productivity, and alter the spread of vector-borne diseases. In turn, these consequences are likely to influence human migration and disproportionately affect those most vulnerable, exacerbating pre-existing inequalities and even worsening some mental health issues. Collectively, these threats pose a significant risk to the human systems on which we all rely, such as global food markets, national governance and international security, with potentially severe consequences for human health and well-being.
While not all impacts of climate change will be of overall detriment to human health – for example reduced cold-related winter deaths could outnumber increased heat-related summer deaths in some temperate regions – climate change is considered by some experts to be the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.
Greatest threat, greatest opportunity
Nevertheless, despite this great threat, mitigation and adaptation strategies, if well designed, hold the potential for significant and numerous benefits to human health and well-being, even beyond the limiting of direct impacts from climate change. The transition to clean energy and increased energy efficiency, for example, can improve energy security and access, bringing with it associated benefits to communities and the economy in addition to health benefits from decreased environmental pollution. Individual actions, such as an increase in active travel and reduced energy consumption, can save money as well as increase healthy living and reduce individual exposure to poor air quality. Meanwhile, targeted adaptation efforts can work to reduce social and economic inequalities, reducing risk to society as a whole.
The potential of these benefits is not to be underestimated: in a recent review of necessary policy responses, the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change concluded that “tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.” Encouragingly, recent achievements at the international stage – the Paris Agreement on climate change and the launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – provide a framework and clear direction for governments to make the most of this opportunity.
Ultimately, governments, businesses, and societies around the world all need to place human health and well-being at the heart of climate change action, as their outcomes are inextricably linked.
SEPA, empowered by its new statutory purpose, is able to play an unprecedented role in this challenge for Scotland by considering, in its duties, how environmental protection and improvement can also promote human health and well-being, and sustainable economic growth. Climate change cuts right across all of the work that SEPA does as the guardian of Scotland’s environment, so it must increasingly be placed at the heart of all that we do and the way we do it.