Potential Effects of Weather Extremes and Climate Change on Human Health

Devra Lee Davis and John C. Topping, Jr

Projected extremes and variations in weather associated with long-term climate change pose a number of chronic and acute risks for human health. With sufficient advance warning and relatively gradual rates of change, public health systems, even in poorer developing countries, might adapt to such changes to limit their adverse impacts. Much of the evidence advanced by climate experts writing in this book suggests that the abruptness of climate change is likely to limit the effectiveness of any adaptation strategies. We may see an interplay of a variety of factors: significantly higher temperatures producing more frequent and prolonged heat waves along with associated deterioration of air quality; more extreme weather events (storms, floods and droughts); coastal inundation and salt water intrusion into fresh water supplies, water treatment plants, landfills and hazardous waste facilities; and increased ranges for the survival of pests and other disease vectors as a result of warmer winters and earlier onset of spring temperatures. Rapid rates of change will profoundly alter habitats, changing some forests to grasslands (with the pace of change often accelerated by wildfire), squeezing out many wetlands, and shifting distributions of flora and fauna. Projecting the impacts of such changes on human health and well-being remains somewhat speculative, however, there are a number of reasons to anticipate some rude surprises.

Climate change will lead to a wide diversity of direct and indirect effects on human health and well-being. These include: threats to food security; increased incidence of heat stress and air pollution; changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as flooding, droughts and severe storms; changes in the incidence and magnitude of water and food-borne diseases; changes in the incidence and distribution of diseases borne by insects, rodents and other wildlife; and ripple effects of large-scale displacements of people and ecosystems projected as a result of extreme events and failures in food production. The implications of climate change are global, although this chapter focuses primarily on the public health implications of the current build-up of greenhouse gases for nation states in North America and the Caribbean.

Although there remains considerable uncertainty on the magnitude and specific regional distribution of impacts, some generalizations on the relationship between climate change and public health can be drawn with a modest degree of confidence. These findings, together with those reported by the IPCC and others, indicate that policies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the long term can be expected to also have significant benefits for public health and the environment in the near term.

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