Global wARMING AND climate change may produce a wide variety of harmful impacts on human health. Although the magnitude and timing of climate change and the effects of human adaptation are not known with certainty, some inferences have been drawn from existing models. These models attempt to use historical scientific data and current global or regional trends to estimate a range of possible future outcomes. There remains significant disagreement in both scientific and political circles regarding trends in global warming, potential threats posed by change, and the need for mitigation effort. Five major potential outcomes of global warming and climate change associated with significant health consequences include increases in ambient temperature, weather extremes, shifts in infectious disease patterns, changes in air quality, and resource pressures associated with migration and adaptation.
Public health practitioners and medical researchers in government, academia, and other agencies around the world are studying possible health impacts of global warming and associated climate change. There is a growing body of literature used to help understand current trends and extrapolate future trends, representing the work of experts from many disciplines, working to understand health effects. Increasingly, this research takes place through collaborative partnerships or organizations comprised of experts from across the globe. Two examples of these types of collaborative efforts are research conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Both direct and indirect health effects can occur from transient heat increases, extreme weather events, water availability and quality, changes in air quality and atmospheric protection, infectious diseases, and the interplay of these factors. Although some impacts may be positive, such as the possibility that increased winter temperatures may result in lower seasonal morbidity and mortality in some areas, the overall impact of global warming and climate change on human health is expected to be negative. This imbalance is partly attributed to the likelihood that climate changes over the next several centuries will outpace local and regional capacity for adaptation in many areas.
There are many uncertainties and challenges in accurately predicting the health effects of global warming and climate change. Partly, this is because the overall outcomes depend extensively on other factors that impact human health and compound their effects. These factors include population expansion, energy production, pollution or misuse of land and water resources, deforestation, and urbanization. Another complication in predicting the health effects are the many ways in which health impacts may be offset by continuing scientific advances in medical care, pharmacology, and public health. This may prove especially important with improved access and resources in developing countries.
Effects of global warming and climate change are expected to vary by population socio-demographic characteristics and by geographic area. People in developing countries are particularly vulnerable, in part, because of the reduced resources for planning and responding to changes, often due to geographic location. People who live in areas that are prone to extreme weather events, such as coastlands and lowlands, are more likely to be adversely affected. In many areas, people who contribute the least to global warming and climate change (through energy consumption and waste production) will be the most vulnerable to its effects. In both developed and developing countries, the poor, elderly, very young, and chronically ill are more vulnerable than healthier or more affluent people. Finally, there are many areas that are currently only sparsely populated, due to marginal water and food resources. With relatively small changes in average annual temperature or shifts in rainfall patterns, many of these areas will no longer support sustained human activity. Other areas that are currently too cold or arid may become more hospitable, but migration requires tremendous amounts of resources, and often requires travel across semi-permeable political (or cultural) boundaries.
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