Aside from its impact on sea levels, weather and the economy, researchers say climate change is also an urgent public health concern, a matter that has been largely left out of the global climate conversation until recently.
Rising average temperatures and more frequent weather extremes place a tremendous burden on human health, a fact officials need to include in developing a climate policy at regional and international scales. These are not merely practical concerns but have strong ethical implications as outlined in two papers last week in the journal PLoS Medicine.
"Lots of people are extremely interested in climate, but somehow the public health community has been a little bit slow on the uptake," said Peter Byass, director of the Umeå Centre for Global Health Research in Sweden. "I think it's high time we did make those connections."
Byass, who co-authored one of the papers, observed that previous international climate talks focused more on economic issues relating to development, curbing emissions and spreading the cost burden.
When it came to environmental impacts, the focus was on threatened and endangered species and ecological losses rather than human health. However, health has been gaining traction, and Byass noted that climate change health implications were discussed at a summit alongside the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change conference in Durban, South Africa, last December.
Of particular concern is the fact that not everyone will face the same health risks. "As with almost all health problems, richer people are in a better position to avoid risks," said Byass. "The youngest and the oldest and the poorest are probably the most vulnerable groups."
Climate health issues like infectious diseases, temperature extremes and dangerous weather will have the strongest impacts on people who likely contributed the least to climate change, like those in the developing world. Jerome Amir Singh, a researcher at the Centre for AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa and at the University of Toronto, argued in his paper that the economic factors that created the current climate change scenario are unlikely to lead the world to a solution on their own.Looking beyond national self-interest
"It's not that economic principles should be downgraded," Singh said. "They should be weighted equally with health." To do so, policymakers need to establish ethics guidelines on how to account for health impacts in climate negotiations and make them a central concern. "One of the things we try to stress to people is that regulatory instruments set out what you are supposed to do. Ethics set out what you should do," he said.
Within nations, addressing climate health impacts is a matter of weighing upfront versus deferred costs -- that is, deciding to spend money to reduce emissions and pursue sustainable development or spending more money many years down the line to contend with disease, persistent flooding and an overwhelmed health sector. On the international stage, an apparatus is needed to financially compensate poorer countries facing the brunt of climate change and its associated effects on human well-being.
However, Singh said countries like China, India and Brazil are not off the hook. "My criticism is not just of developed countries, but developing countries who are not taking into account the global impacts of their policies," he said. "They need to get out of their victim mindset and take responsibility at the global level."
Addressing public health concerns from climate change requires top-down regulations and guidance mirrored by bottom-up action, according to Byass, who suggested individuals should do things that have climate and health co-benefits, like bicycling, which displaces fuel emissions and improves health through exercise.