Climate Change: A health catastrophe in Making

NeeshadNeeshad VS is a youth environmental activist and outspoken climate change advocate, who campaigns extensively on social media platforms to raise the awareness about climate change, water and wildlife conservation and sustainable development. He currently holds community manager position at CliMates and co-coordinator at AYCM Qatar (Arab Youth Climate Movement), Online Digital Advocate at World Humanitarian Summit and Executive Member with African Youth Advocacy Platform (AYAP). He is also an active member with numerous social initiatives like QGBC (Qatar Green Building Council, Qatar), Reach Out to Asia (ROTA) Qatar, Estedama Qatar, WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education, Qatar), Eco Mena, Greenpeace India and 350 India.

The effects of climate change are being felt today and future projections present an unacceptably high and potentially catastrophic risk to human health. The overall health effects of a changing climate are overwhelmingly seen across the globe. Climate change affects social and environmental determinants of health: clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter. Global climate change is thus a significant addition to the spectrum of environmental health hazards faced by humankind. Similarly, the authors of the IPCC assessment of climate change on health emphasis that the health impacts become amplified over time.

In a landmark document recently released, Pope Francis aimed to focus the world’s attention on the matter of how climate change impacts the poor. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications to environmental, social, economic, and political aspect”, he said.

Contributing to More Extreme-Heat Events

According to NOAA and NASA, this year is on track to supplant last year as the warmest year on record.

Global climate change would affect human health through pathways of varying complexity, scale and directness and with different timing. Similarly, impacts would vary geographically as a function both of environment, topography and vulnerability of the local population. There is no surprise since climate change would disrupt or otherwise alter a large range of natural, ecological and physical systems that are an integral part of Earth’s life support system. As result of climate change, humans are contributing to a change in the conditions of life on Earth.

The heat wave is the latest of several episodes across the world this summer, including droughts, storms, and floods with major effects in West Asia like India and Pakistan and elsewhere in the US and Mexico. The severity of the events came from a deadly combination of meteorology, possibly with a boost from climate change, and highly vulnerable populations. Older individuals who have a higher risk of dying during extreme heat events will bear a disproportionate share of the impacts. Heat waves and other extreme weather events can also disproportionately affect low-income communities, raising environmental justice concerns.

A major report few weeks back from The Lancet Commission on ‘Health and Climate Change’ finds that climate change significantly increases the fatal risks health. The report, which was backed by the World Health Organization (WHO), diagnosed climate change as “a medical emergency” with the power to undo 50 years of progress in global health. Given the potential of climate change to reverse the health gains from economic development, and the health co-benefits that accrue from actions for a sustainable economy, tackling climate change could be the greatest.

Increasing Diseases

Climate change threatens the health and well-being of every human in various ways, from increasing the risk of asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses to changing the spread of certain vector-borne diseases. Some of these health impacts are already underway across the globe and climate change will, amplify some of the existing health threats that we now faces. Certain people and communities are especially vulnerable to the health effects of climate change, including children, elderly people, those with chronic illnesses and the poor, perhaps the most vulnerable community to be impacted by change in climate.

We know climate change will put vulnerable populations at greater risk including the elderly, our kids, and people already suffering from burdensome allergies, asthma and other illnesses. Pre-existing health conditions make older adults susceptible to the cardiac and respiratory impacts of air pollution. Higher rates of diabetes, obesity or asthma in some communities may place them at greater risk to climate-related health impacts. Children, who breathe more air than adults due to their smaller size, are also at higher risk of worsened asthma and respiratory symptoms from air pollution.

Way forward

All populations will be affected by climate change but some are more vulnerable than others. People living in small-island, developing states and other coastal regions, megacities, mountainous and polar regions are particularly vulnerable.

Children, and especially children living in poor countries, are among the most vulnerable to the resulting health risks and will be exposed longer to the health consequences. The health effects are also expected to be more severe for elderly people and people with infirmities or pre-existing medical conditions. Areas with weak health infrastructure mostly in developing countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond.

Reducing inequities within and between countries is crucial to promote climate change resilience and improving global health. Neither can be delivered without accompanying sustainable development that addresses key health determinants like access to safe water and clean air, food security, strong and accessible health systems, and reductions in social and economic inequity. Any prioritization in global health must therefore place sustainable development and climate change front and centre.

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