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Climate Change is a Humanitarian Problem (With Health Consequences for All)

A shifting climate brings with it a host of adverse health problems for people around the world, but the hardest hit are citizens of developing nations. Food and water security, vectorborne diseases, severe weather events, and armed conflicts all herald declining health and quality of life for populations that contributed few emissions to the problem, compared to their wealthy global neighbors.

This was the main message at a Capitol Hill briefing on global health and climate change yesterday hosted by the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming and the Congressional Global Health Caucus. Panelists included Michael St. Louis from the Centers for Disease Control, Paul Epstein from the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, and Pablo Suarez, a researcher on climate change and disasters for Oxfam America and Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre. They spoke about severe weather events that are already changing the quality of life for many in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia and emphasized that competition for land and water, and ensuing intertribal and international conflict, will only intensify in coming years due to an increasing world population and the mounting effects of global warming.

The panelists emphasized the need for adaptation policies to deal with these effects. Suarez provided an example of a village he has visited that, after several larger-than-normal floods, has switched from chickens to ducks as their main source of food, but many more adaptations are necessary to protect human health. Even if humans could stop emitting greenhouse gases today, we would continue to feel the effects of climate change for many years to come. To accompany the ambitious policies that are undoubtedly required to slow global warming, we also need to address the very real public health concerns that, according to Suarez, are already on the rise.

But the briefing was disappointingly incomplete in one major area, as it failed to address to health impacts that Americans will feel due to climate change. Epstein has been writing about the hazardous effect climate change will have on Americans’ health for years, but neglected to bring that to the conversation. Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report last week detailing the impacts climate change will have on the health of Americans, even as the agency announced it will continue to respond with inaction. Any movement on the issue will have to come from Congress, but without evidence that the health effects will reach industrialized nations, legislators and the public will feel little urgency.

When asked point blank about vulnerabilities in the United States, the most compelling example the panel offered is the increased number of asthma cases in inner city youth. However, the CDC Policy on Climate Change and Public Health offers up plenty of health concerns that are more severe and widespread, including vector-, food-, and water-borne diseases, as well as drowning and loss of property due to extreme weather events. A recent analysis even estimates that as a result of dehydration caused by warmer temperatures in the United States, there could be 2.25 million additional kidney stone cases each year, which would weigh down the health care industry with as much as $1.3 billion in additional annual treatment costs by 2050.

If activists want to change policy, these are the sorts of effects they need to hammer. Historically, the plight of sub-Saharan Africans or inner-city youth has not inspired the same fervent action as threats to the American way of life.

Moderator Edward Cameron of the World Bank was right to express his excitement that a focus on health can open up a new and influential avenue of discussion about climate change, just as the Stern Report did. For that focus to be effective though, it needs to be tailored to the audience.


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