Climate and health – reporting from Copenhagen

Guest blog by Peter Byass, Director of Umeå Centre for Global Health Research, Sweden

As a health researcher, naturally I’ve been looking around at the COP15 conference in Copenhagen for people who are interested in the effects of climate change on health. You might think that they would be easy to find – if changes in climate lead to more extreme events, such as droughts, floods and heat, then those events will change patterns of disease and additional people will die. Already we see this happening – whether it is unseasonal patterns of rain for subsistence farmers in Ethiopia, or acute catastrophes, such as more than 300mm of rain in 24 hours falling in northern England last month. And more subtle changes loom – for example in potential threats to blood supply services from climate-changed patterns of vector borne diseases. So, surely human health is an important outcome of climate change? But paradoxically it is easier to find groups in Copenhagen who are concerned about the effects of climate on various animal and plant species, than those concerned with the effects  of climate on human health.

As we all know, more than 50 years ago it was revealed that smoking tobacco leads to greater chances of disease and death. So in public health terms, it is rather shocking to see that today millions of people, in every country of the world, continue to smoke tobacco. WHO is working hard on the tobacco epidemic, but it is still an uphill struggle, and much remains to be done.

One wonders therefore whether the world will be content to live with climate change for the next 50 years – emitting just as much carbon, not changing lifestyles – and so guaranteeing higher chances of disease and death for generations to come? Some of my colleagues have written in the Lancet today about the potential parallels between the ways the global community has handled the tobacco issue and how the world might (or might not) proceed in relation to climate change. Let’s hope that by the end of next week, when more than half of the world’s governmental leaders will be in Copenhagen, that the message to them that they need to act, and act NOW, will be clear – and that they hear it!

Peter Byass is on PLoS Medicine’s editorial board and is the deputy editor of the peer-reviewed open access journal Global Health Action.

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