Saturday, May 7, 2016

Climate change and health: another lost opportunity

The US has just released another major assessment into climate change: 20 megabytes, 405 pages, heaven knows how many references. There is an editorial about it in Environmental Health Perspectives, called "Marking a New Understanding of Climate and Health.

The editorial includes the claim: “It is possible to design and implement interventions to limit the impacts and accompanying human suffering caused by climate change, but only if we make the research investments necessary to improve our understanding of how climate change worsens health and determine the most effective interventions.”

The editorial does not hint (either in this sentence or the whole article) that we need aggressive greenhouse gas mitigation. This sentence promotes the delusion (fallacy and conceit are alternatives) that all we have to do to cope with climate change is better understand the effects and develop interventions (adaptation).

Closely related, the editorial (and probably the whole report) gives no idea of the potential scale of impacts; no hint that climate change, interacting with other dimensions of planetary overload/planetary boundaries/limits to growth/basic tenets of evolution (i.e. limits to inter-group co-operation) has the capacity to unravel civilization.

The editorial claims: “The assessment breaks new ground by providing quantitative projections of the influence of climate change on five different environmental public health problems, including extreme heat, air pollution, food- and water-related illness and safety, and vectorborne disease. The report also expands a critical discussion of the mental health implications of climate change, and greatly broadens consideration of the issues facing especially vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged.”

Perhaps this is new ground in the sense of new “ quantitative projections” for these 5 areas, but the areas themselves are far from new.
In contrast, three relevant peer reviewed papers (Butler et al 2005, Butler and Harley 2010 and Butler 2014) that do break new ground are ignored, as is my edited book (none are cited in the full report).
Each of those papers and the book argued that health workers should understand there is a qualitatively different, much more important, class of effects than these 5 (with or without mental ill-health.) These are generally called "tertiary" in my writing, but synonyms include systemic and catastrophic.
Recently, Hansen et al’s paper was released, warning sea level rise could reach several metres this century, leading to retreat from most coastal cities. In addition another paper has just been published warning the Western Antarctic Ice Shelf is also more vulnerable to rapid melt than realised.
How can the world (even the US) adapt to the health effects of such sea level rise? Even 1 metre of sea level rise by 2100 will be very problematic for the US.

Miami, increasingly flood-prone and not able to defended by existing technology (from sea level rise) is not mentioned in the full report, other than a reference to mental health following Hurricane Andrew. And sea level rise is just part of the problem.

However, sea level rise is mentioned as a key finding: "Climate change will increase exposure risk to coastal flooding due to increases in extreme precipitation and in hurricane intensity and rainfall rates, as well as sea level rise and the resulting increases in storm surge [High Confidence]. 

I have yet to find if the report estimates how many internally displaced Americans this will mean by 2100, but I think it will be many millions. In the last week about 80,000 Canadians have had to leave Fort McMurray; due in part to climate change; not all of them will leave. Refugees are already leaving parts of Louisiana.

It is however a lost opportunity to produce such a lengthy report that appears to fail to acknowledge the potentially catastrophic dimension to climate change and health. I wish it were not so, but without that dimension I would not be interested in it at all .. there are so many other issues in health. But "planetary overload" is always on my mind; I wish it would recede but it won’t.


In April, 2016, I and 13 colleagues submitted a 750 word letter about these issues to Environmental Health Perspectives. The journal replied that they do not publish letters in response to editorials, but they encouraged us to write a commentary. I hope we can do that shortly.