The effects of climate change are already having numerous direct and indirect consequences for human health. And with climate change proceeding at the current speed, experts are prepared for worse to come.
WHO says humans must adjust to realities of climate change
With the UN climate summit underway in Cancun, Politicians and health experts have met in Bonn, Germany, to discuss the risks posed to human health by the increasing number of extreme weather events, and ways of helping the population to prepare, adapt – and stay healthy.
"It's not just about people dying from drowning or accidents during the floods," said Juergen Becker, Secretary of State in Bonn’s Environment Ministry. "We also have to look at measures to tackle water pollution afterwards or problems resulting from mould growing inside affected buildings."
Becker cites the heat waves in Europe during 2003 and 2006 as examples. He stresses that even in a wealthy industrialized country like Germany, with its good medical infrastructure, there were an estimated 7,000 deaths from heart attacks and heat-related illnesses during the 2003 heat wave - one of the most extreme summer events ever recorded in Europe. The environment expert is also worried about increased flooding in Germany in future.
Over the past 20 years, more than 650,000 people have died in around 14,000 extreme weather events - like storms, floods and heat waves - according to the latest Climate Risk Index published by Germanwatch in Cancun. And with climate change proceeding at the current speed that number is likely to keep increasing.
The German Environment Ministry, the Environment Agency, the German meteorological office DWD and the World Health Organization Europe all say it's high time to get prepared for worse to come.
Extreme weather through climate change
The old and young are most at risk from climate change.
The increase in the number of extreme weather events is quite clearly related to the changing climate, says Paul Becker, deputy director of Germany’s Meteorological Office, the DWD. It is not only the average temperature that is on the rise, both globally and regionally, says the weather expert.
"The extremes are on the rise. That means hot days for instance. And clearly, an increase in the number of hot days and also warm nights, which we refer to as tropical, when the temperature does not sink below 20 degrees Celsius – obviously have an effect on the human body," said Becker.
The World Health Organization is highly concerned about both the direct and the indirect effects of climate change on health. Srdan Matic, a health and environment expert with WHO Europe, says as many as 70,000 people are estimated to have died in Europe as a whole during the heat wave of 2003. The elderly, children and the homeless are the most vulnerable.
Matic also cites this summer’s heat wave in Russia as an example of the type of extreme weather event which results in a high number of deaths and casualties. Initial estimates put the number of extra deaths attributable to the heat wave at between 10 and 20,000 in just two weeks, he says.
The problem was compounded by the fires across Russia. In addition to the direct effects, the air pollution caused by smoke also represented a major health hazard. If the wind had been blowing in a different direction, Matic says, other European countries would also have had to deal with the health problems caused by air pollution.
Other long-term effects in regions where the climate becomes warmer will be water shortages and drought, which clearly have an impact on people's health.
Tiger Mosquitos are finding a new home in a warmer Europe
The experts are also concerned about invasive species of plants and animals bringing health problems to areas where they were not prevalent before. Meteorologist Paul Becker mentions allergies and other problems caused by new types of pollen. The pollen season can also be lengthened by changes in the climate.
The arrival of insects previously native in tropical areas is presenting the health experts with another “headache”. The tiger mosquito which spreads dengue fever, for instance, has already moved into European countries like Italy, France, Spain and Switzerland.
"Learn to live with it"
Our societies have to adapt to changing climatic conditions, says Becker, to protect the population from health problems. Reliable forecasts, early warning systems and good communication are essential elements.
In the case of an extreme heat wave, for instance, he says Germany already has an early warning system, which makes sure the public is informed about the risks so that, for instance, homes for the elderly can adjust the diet of residents and shift them to cooler accommodation. Flood protection measures are another example he cites, where measures are already being implemented to adapt to climate change.
Ultimately, says Srdan Matic from the WHO, we have got to get used to extreme weather events. The health services will have to be ready to treat an increasing number of people with asthma attacks or to provide emergency care for people suffering from dehydration during a heat wave, he suggests.
But we have to think further than that, says the health expert. Ultimately, we have to adjust the way we move around, the way we build our houses, heat them and cool them to adapt to a changing climate. The message, he says, is "learn to live with it."
Author: Irene Quaile
Editor: Gudrun Heise, Andreas Illmer