Climate Change 2001:
Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
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4.7. Human Health

Global climate change will have diverse impacts on human health—some positive, most negative. Changes in the frequencies of extreme heat and cold, the frequencies of floods and droughts, and the profile of local air pollution and aeroallergens would affect population health directly. Other health impacts would result from the impacts of climate change on ecological and social systems. These impacts would include changes in infectious disease occurrence, local food production and undernutrition, and various health consequences of population displacement and economic disruption.

There is little published evidence that changes in population health status actually have occurred in response to observed trends in climate over recent decades. A recurring difficulty in identifying such impacts is that the causation of most human health disorders is multifactorial, and the "background" socioeconomic, demographic, and environmental context changes significantly over time.

Studies of the health impacts associated with interannual climate variability (particularly those related to the El Niño cycle) have provided new evidence of human health sensitivity to climate, particularly for mosquito-borne diseases. The combination of existing research-based knowledge, resultant theoretical understandings, and the output of predictive modeling leads to several conclusions about the future impacts of climate change on human population health.

If heat waves increase in frequency and intensity, the risk of death and serious illness would increase, principally in older age groups and the urban poor (high confidence). The effects of an increase in heat waves often would be exacerbated by increased humidity and urban air pollution. The greatest increases in thermal stress are forecast for mid- to high-latitude (temperate) cities, especially in populations with nonadapted architecture and limited air conditioning. Modeling of heat wave impacts in urban populations, allowing for acclimatization, suggests that a number of U.S. cities would experience, on average, several hundred extra deaths each summer. Although the impact of climate change on thermal stress-related mortality in developing country cities may be significant, there has been little research in such populations. Warmer winters and fewer cold spells will decrease cold-related mortality in many temperate countries (high confidence). Limited evidence indicates that in at least some temperate countries, reduced winter deaths would outnumber increased summer deaths (medium confidence). [9.4]

Any increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as storms, floods, droughts, and cyclones would adversely impact human health through a variety of pathways. These natural hazards can cause direct loss of life and injury and can affect health indirectly through loss of shelter, population displacement, contamination of water supplies, loss of food production (leading to hunger and malnutrition), increased risk of infectious disease epidemics (including diarrhoeal and respiratory disease), and damage to infrastructure for provision of health services (very high confidence). If cyclones were to increase regionally, devastating impacts often would occur, particularly in densely settled populations with inadequate resources. Over recent years, major climate-related disasters have had major adverse effects on human health, including floods in China, Bangladesh, Europe, Venezuela, and Mozambique, as well as Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Central America. [9.5]

Climate change will decrease air quality in urban areas with air pollution problems (medium confidence). An increase in temperature (and, in some models, ultraviolet radiation) increases the formation of ground-level ozone, a pollutant with well-established adverse effects on respiratory health. Effects of climate change on other air pollutants are less well established. [9.6]

Higher temperatures, changes in precipitation, and changes in climate variability would alter the geographic ranges and seasonality of transmission of vector-borne infectious diseases— extending the range and season for some infectious diseases and contracting them for others. Vector-borne infectious diseases are transmitted by blood-feeding organisms such as mosquitoes and ticks. Such organisms depend on the complex interaction of climate and other ecological factors for survival. Currently, 40% of the world population lives in areas with malaria. In areas with limited or deteriorating public health infrastructure, increased temperatures will tend to expand the geographic range of malaria transmission to higher altitudes (high to medium confidence) and higher latitudes (medium to low confidence). Higher temperatures, in combination with conducive patterns of rainfall and surface water, will extend the transmission season in some locations (high confidence). Changes in climate, including changes in climate variability, would affect many other vector-borne infections (such as dengue, leishmansiasis, various types of mosquito-borne encephalitis, Lyme disease, and tick-borne encephalitis) at the margins of their current distributions (medium/high confidence). For some vector-borne diseases in some locations, climate change will decrease transmission via reductions in rainfall or temperatures that are too high for transmission (medium confidence). A range of mathematical models indicate, with high consistency, that climate change scenarios over the coming century would cause a small net increase in the proportion of the world's population living in regions of potential transmission of malaria and dengue (medium to high confidence). A change in climatic conditions will increase the incidence of various types of water- and food-borne infectious diseases. [9.7]

Climate change may cause changes in the marine environment that would alter risks of biotoxin poisoning from human consumption of fish and shellfish. Biotoxins associated with warmer waters, such as ciguatera in tropical waters, could extend their range to higher latitudes (low confidence). Higher SSTs also would increase the occurrence of toxic algal blooms (medium confidence), which have complex relationships with human poisoning and are ecologically and economically damaging. Changes in surface water quantity and quality will affect the incidence of diarrhoeal diseases (medium confidence). [9.8]

Changes in food supply resulting from climate change could affect the nutrition and health of the poor in some regions of the world. Studies of climate change impacts on food production indicate that, globally, impacts could be positive or negative, but the risk of reduced food yields is greatest in developing countries—where 790 million people are estimated to be undernourished at present. Populations in isolated areas with poor access to markets will be particularly vulnerable to local decreases or disruptions in food supply. Undernourishment is a fundamental cause of stunted physical and intellectual development in children, low productivity in adults, and susceptibility to infectious disease. Climate change would increase the number of undernourished people in the developing world (medium confidence), particularly in the tropics. [9.9, 5.3]

In some settings, the impacts of climate change may cause social disruption, economic decline, and population displacement that would affect human health. Health impacts associated with population displacement resulting from natural disasters or environmental degradation are substantial (high confidence). [9.10]

For each anticipated adverse health impact there is a range of social, institutional, technological, and behavioral adaptation options to lessen that impact (see Table TS-5). Overall, the adverse health impacts of climate change will be greatest in vulnerable lower income populations, predominately within tropical/subtropical countries. There is a basic and general need for public health infrastructure (programs, services, surveillance systems) to be strengthened and maintained. The ability of affected communities to adapt to risks to health also depends on social, environmental, political, and economic circumstances. [9.11]

Table TS-5: Options for adaptation to reduce health impacts of climate change.
Health Outcome Legislative Technical Educational Advisory Cultural and Behavioral
Thermal stress
- Building guidelines
- Housing, public buildings, urban planning to reduce heat island effects, air conditioning - Early warning
- Clothing, siesta
weather events
- Planning laws
- Building guidelines
- Forced migration
- Economic incentives for building
- Urban planning
- Storm shelters
- Early warning
- Use of storm
Air quality - Emission controls
- Traffic restrictions
- Improved public transport, catalytic converters, smoke stacks - Pollution warnings - Carpooling
  - Vector control
- Vaccination, impregnated bednets
- Sustainable surveillance, prevention and control
- Health education - Water storage
- Watershed protection laws
- Water quality regulation
- Genetic/molecular screening of pathogens
- Improved water treatment (e.g., filters)
- Improved sanitation (e.g., latrines)
- Boil water alerts
- Washing hands and other hygiene behavior
- Use of pit latrines

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