Interview: The far-reaching health impacts of global warming

«We have to change the way we live, the way we move, how we spend our money. This is a profound transformation and the majority of changes are yet to come.»

Climate change is not only about heatwaves and infectious diseases, says Sari Kovats from the London School of Tropical Medicine. Predicted effects on health also include respiratory diseases during winter, diarrhoea and malnutrition, she told EURACTIV in an interview ahead of Commission proposals to tackle the issue, due out next year.

“Climate change is not only about heatwaves, infectious diseases and surveillance,” said Dr. Sari Kovats, a researcher at the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, speaking at a conference on climate change challenges for public health on 2 October 2007. EU priorities for action on health and climate change should include cross-sectoral issues, such as disaster preparedness and housing, she said.

“Direct temperature effects of climate change include the health impacts of heatwaves and excess winter mortality due to, for example, respiratory disease. Predicted health effects of climate change also include floods, malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition,” she said. 

“However, evidence of the health impacts of climate change is very complex as a period of longer than 30 years is needed to show climate change and health changes very rapidly due to social developments and changes,” she added in her overview of current and predicted climate change health impacts identified in the IPPC Fourth Assessment Report.

“Climate change has been on the environmental agenda for some time now. We are pleased to see that health is also finally addressed in the climate change context,” said Despina Spanou, a member of the cabinet of Markos Kyprianou, EU commissioner responsible for health. “For years we thought that climate change was only about extreme weather conditions, but now we have realised that these conditions have a wider impact – indirect, but not necessarily less dangerous – on human and animal health. 

Even though “climate change effects on health can for the moment only be speculated upon,” Spanou explained that the Commission will adopt a communication on its consequences for animal and human health in 2008. The communication will list current knowledge of the field and open a debate on the issue. It will also consider developing response mechanisms to climate change and ways to involve all actors concerned, such as doctors and veterinarians. 

In the communication, the Commission will put forward concrete recommendations for action at EU level, such as the need for assessment and revision of the current legislative framework for human and animal health to ascertain whether climate change should be taken into account there. Furthermore, it will recommend strengthening surveillance methods and organising awareness campaigns.

To conclude, Dr Kovats reiterated the conclusions drawn by the IPCC on the health impacts of climate change: countries need to improve their adaptative capacity in order to be prepared for extreme weather events, adverse health impacts will be greatest in low-income countries, and economic development is an important component of adaptation. 

To read the full interview with Dr Sari Kovats, please click here.

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