On the 23 January, Peers for the Planet hosted the Government Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, in Parliament for a briefing on how the challenges of global health and development are linked to the fight against climate change.
Climate change and health
Peers heard how, as the climate and nature crisis worsens, whilst there will be adverse health effects everywhere it will be less wealthy nations who will feel the brunt of the health effects of climate change. The scale of the impacts will depend on how much warming we see and the support and infrastructure we put in place to manage the consequences.
The briefing focussed on the potential impacts of changes in temperature and water both globally and specifically on Africa:
We are likely to see more people dying of heat related issues globally with increases in mortality in the youngest and older people. In the UK we will need to adapt buildings to manage heat risks and target efforts on the homes of the most vulnerable.
Engineering solutions for keeping buildings cool when it is warm are available, including those that have been practised in the Mediterranean for centuries. For keeping buildings warm when it is cold we need to put engineers on the case to overcome the tension between the need for good ventilation to improve indoor air quality and reduce the spread of disease, and the need for good insulation for energy efficiency and avoiding cold weather-related health risks.
Changes in rainfall patterns and temperature will have a moderate but indefinite impact across Africa on agriculture, with some places becoming more productive but many populated areas less so. This will impact on livelihoods, health and malnutrition.
Large parts of Africa will become incredibly water stressed with places already experiencing water stress becoming more so, particularly rain fed systems. In parts of Asia reductions in water from mountain regions will have a major effect.
Stressed water environments (too much or too little) can drive many diseases of poverty so without countermeasures we are likely to see an increase in diseases such as cholera, typhoid and changes in vector-borne diseases such as malaria.
There are engineering solutions available to increase water availability, but these will rely on significant investment.
The likelihood and intensity of natural disasters and extreme weather events such as droughts and storms will increase, which will impact human health, destroy crops, sanitation and livelihoods and lead to disease and malnutrition.
Sir Chris said that even though these problems will increase, so will Africa’s and the world’s ability to respond. In the future Africa will be richer, more urbanised and have more infrastructure in place to be able to respond through economic and technological developments. Countermeasures to these challenges are available – but they will require investment.
There is also the promise of drought and pest resilient crops and the proven ability of humans to respond to health threats, as seen in the pandemic and interventions that have defied expectations to reduce malaria in Africa over the past twenty years.
The climate change is however irreversible - so even though we can adapt to some of the changes in human health we need to minimise future climate change as a matter of urgency for health reasons, including wider reasons such as biodiversity.
Climate change and air pollution
Sir Chris also provided highlights from his Chief Medical Officer’s annual report 2022 on air pollution. The report presents the solutions available to reduce air pollution (many of which are also good for climate change, such as removal of solid fuels for cooking and heating and a reduction in vehicle emissions), and the role that government and industry can play in delivering them.