Health expert: impact of climate change needs to be considered broadly

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The health impact of climate change will be very broad, with issues ranging from flood defence and preparedness to building regulations, housing quality, urban environment and food security – none of which are traditionally part of the health box, argues climate change and health researcher Sari Kovats.

Dr. Sari Kovats is a lecturer and researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (
LSHTM
). She has mainly worked on research and assessments of the health implications of climate change and climate variability. She participated in the work of the 
IPPC
 Fourth Assessment Report. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

What evidence do we currently have on the health impact of climate change? 

The IPCC report argues that global warming has been very likely due to human activities for 30 years now. So the report includes a whole chapter on early evidence. However, there is very little health that fits that chapter because health changes very rapidly over a thirty-year period due to social change and issues. 

However, there were three points we felt met the criteria for early evidence of climate change’s impact on health. These were:

  • Some changes in infectious disease vectors, which relate to tics moving northward in the northern hemisphere in Canada and Sweden; 
  • Changes to the pollen season – allergenic pollen and spring pollen are coming earlier, and;
  • The issue around heat waves. They have been more frequent and the 2003 heat wave, which had a clear health impact, can be contributed to climate change.

What is the risk of tropical and semi-tropical diseases such as Bluetongue or Chikungunya spreading in Europe due to climate change? 

These two diseases are very different. Bluetongue has been moving through northern Europe, consistent with warming, so it has a clear climate change signal. First, the mosquitoes moved north, and then the diseases moved north. Afterwards, the mosquito’s seasonal pattern changed: it is now active throughout the year whereas it used to be active only in the summer. 

So, the mosquito’s seasonality and distribution have changed consistent with warming – and bluetongue has moved consistent with warming. 

Chikungunya is a very different case. There has been only one outbreak brought in by a passenger returning from India, so we can’t make any generalisation. Tiger mosquitoes [spreading the disease] have been present in Europe for a very long time. Chikungunya is a very good example of a disease caused by global trade and globalisation, not climate change, because the mosquito has spread around the world in shipping and is everywhere. 

How is the scientific evidence of the health impact of climate change gathered?

As an epidemiologist, I use the data that the climatologists give me and rely on the conclusions of the climatologists on the scientific evidence of climate change. Then I review the health evidence. 

Will the climate change effect on health vary in different parts of Europe?

There will be big differences, because the rate of warming is much higher in the north than anywhere else. It is about icebergs melting and so on, whereas in southern Europe the issues will be around water scarcity and heat as absolute temperatures will increase.  The south will have temperatures of 40-45 degrees much more often. 

How can economic development help adaptation to climate change?

We are looking at the climate change effect in 20, 30 and 50 years’ time – what will, for example, Botswana be doing by that time? It could be much more developed than it is today in terms of infrastructure and so on. Just as Bangladesh, India and China will have some of the climate change effects, they will also hopefully be better prepared since they’ll already be middle-income countries. 

What should be the EU priorities for action on health and climate change? 

It is a real problem trying to define health adaptation because often it is very narrowly defined. The health section is always only about infectious diseases and surveillance. But the point is that the health impacts are very broad. We need to be concerned about flood defence and preparedness, building regulations, housing quality – all houses are designed for the wrong climate – urban environment and food security – even though they do not come under the traditional health box. 

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