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Climate change and healthcare

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The scientific evidence points strongly to the Earth having a climate that is changing rapidly — these changes being largely caused by human activity as we go about our everyday lives.

On a local scale, there will be parts of the world which see a net benefit from a warming world, but there are many areas that will see a dramatic deterioration in their environment which will impact in a negative way on people’s health.

The potential impact on our health is significant and there are several aspects of this that we could consider:

  • What are the facts — namely how will a changing climate affect the environments we live in?
  • How will these changing environments affect the health of the people who live there?
  • What aspects of this area of science are we sure of, and what are we less sure about?
  • What can we do about it as individuals and at an organisational level?

Public health depends on safe drinking water, sufficient food, secure shelter, and good social conditions. A changing climate is likely to affect all of these conditions. Some of the health effects include:

“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.

“Fortunately, much of the health risk is avoidable through existing health programmes and interventions. Concerted action to strengthen key features of health systems, and to promote healthy development choices, can enhance public health now as well as reduce vulnerability to future climate change.”

World Health Organization

  • Increasing frequencies of heatwaves — recent analyses show that human-induced climate change significantly increased the likelihood of the European summer heatwave of 2003.
  • More variable precipitation patterns are likely to compromise the supply of freshwater, increasing risks of water-borne disease.
  • Rising temperatures and variable precipitation are likely to decrease the production of staple foods in many key regions, increasing risk of global shortages and ultimately malnutrition in the poorest countries.
  • Rising sea levels increase the risk of coastal flooding leading to population displacement. More than half of the world’s population now lives within 60 km of the sea. Some of the most vulnerable regions are the Nile delta in Egypt, the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta in Bangladesh, and many small islands, such as the Maldives, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu.
  • Changes in climate are likely to lengthen the transmission seasons of important vector-borne diseases, and to alter their geographic range, potentially bringing them to regions which lack either population immunity or a strong public health infrastructure.

The Met Office is playing a key role on the national and international stage to develop the science. The aim is to understand how weather and climate affect people’s health in the short term (2–5 day timescale) out to the year or decadal time scale. The work that we do informs policy makers of the size and urgency of the task ahead in the context of climate change. Importantly it also goes into the development services to combat these effects.

This work is of great complexity and requires that organisations and governments work together for best effect. For this reason, we work with national governments, leading businesses and academic centres as well as other influential groups to help society deal with the challenges ahead.