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Climate change harms your health

Published on March 29, 2022

And the Covid pandemic by cutting down spending on emissions may have further harmed the climate

By Saadia Azim

In February 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the second part of the Sixth Assessment Report (IPCC WGII AR6). The Working Group II report assesses the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities at global and regional levels. It highlights that global climate change will considerably impact human communities and increase the risks of vector-borne and water-borne diseases, under-nutrition, mental disorders, and allergic diseases in Asia.

Furthermore, public health is bound to be deeply affected by the expansion of environmental hazards such as heatwaves, flooding, drought, air pollutants, and more exposure and vulnerability. Thus all-cause mortality, deaths related to circulatory, respiratory, diabetic, infectious disease, and infant mortality will also increase with the temperature rise due to climate change. Weather-related uncertainties such as heavy rain and temperature will increase the risk of diarrheal diseases, dengue fever, and malaria in tropical and subtropical Asia. Frequent hot days and intense heatwaves will give rise to heat-related deaths in Asia. The AR6 explicitly explains the complex cycle starting with climate change, rise in temperature and its direct impacts on public health, asking for urgent attention of global policymakers.

The 3700-page cross-chapter researched report titled “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability” is compiled by 270 authors across 67 countries. Collaborative research through 34,000 scientific papers, in its 18 chapters, explains the impacts of climate change on nature, humanity, their capacities, and limits for adaptation. It states that nearly half the global population now lives in regions “highly vulnerable to climate change.”

IPCC researchers say, “Climate change does affect human health and well-being, depending on direct exposure to hazards such as floods, storms, wildfires, and chronic changes.” There are indirect exposures too, such as displacement, food systems disruptions, and media depiction of climate conditions that cause irreversible impacts on human lives and living conditions. Also, the heterogeneous vulnerabilities within societies influenced by social, economic, and geographical factors such as pre-existing health conditions, socio-economic inequities, gender, age and occupation, and individual differences only add exceedingly to the risk factors. The health conditions are furthered by prevailing climate situation such as the changes in the magnitude, frequency, and intensity of extreme climate events such as storms, floods, wildfires, heatwaves, and dust storms.

Increased mental health and well-being risks are also associated with changes caused by climate-sensitive health outcomes and systems. Higher temperatures and changing geographical and seasonal precipitation patterns facilitate the spread of mosquito- and tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease and dengue fever, and water- and food-borne diseases such as typhoid. An increase in extreme heat events exacerbates health risks associated with cardiovascular disease. It affects access to fresh water in multiple regions, impairing agricultural productivity, increasing food insecurity, undernutrition, and poverty in low-income areas.

The report further elaborates that conditions in an increasingly climate-vulnerable world have now reached a crisis point with new health stressors, community vulnerabilities, and complex health adaptation strategies. What is needed urgently is long-term governmental and policy commitments. The solution space includes policies, strategies, and programs that sustainably consider why, how, when, and whom to adapt to climate change. A critical starting point for health and well-being is strengthening public health systems to become more climate-resilient, which also requires cooperation with other sectors such as water, food, sanitation, transportation, and ensuring appropriate funding and progress on sustainable development goals.

The government’s spending is how the researchers link Climate Change to COVID. They analyse that pandemic economic recovery packages in the 20 largest economies reveal that governments did not spend on emission cuts despite promises to “build back better”. Governments spent unprecedented amounts to escape the economic recession caused by the pandemic and overlooked the complexity of climate change and its impacts on health.

According to the Nature journal mapping climate history, the G20 group of the largest economies spent about US$14 trillion — close to China’s annual gross domestic product, in 2020-2021 on pandemic recovery. However, only 6 percent of the stimulus went on to sectors that cut emissions. In direct response to the pandemic, India dedicated almost $14 billion to prop up its coal industry during the economic downturn. In this scenario, green investments are not enough to reach ‘net zero emissions by 2050 and limit warming to 1.5 °C — that would require around $7 trillion during 2020–24.

As estimated in previous assessments, climate change impacts are more significant now than earlier. They are causing severe disruptions in nature and society and decreasing human ability to grow healthy food and access clean drinking water. For example, people living in cities face higher risks of heat stress, reduced air quality, lack of water, food shortages, and other severe impacts directly linked to climate change. It also affects the supply and transport networks and other vital infrastructure. The hot areas are getting even hotter and reducing people’s tenacity to spend time outside. Outdoor workers thus, cannot work the required hours in the heat and tend to earn less.

Climate change impacts are expected to intensify with additional warming. A collaborative climate justice system is what the world order must frame now – the IPCC AR6 explains why the urgency.

{Saadia Azim is a public policy and cultural affairs specialist with wide ranging experience in policy matters. A former TV journalist, she worked at the U.S. Mission in India for a decade on the environment and educational partnerships.}