Global Policy Forum

The Health Risks of a Big Carbon Footprint

By Dr Tony Waterson

March 2, 2010

It is difficult to open a newspaper or watch a news report without hearing the words 'climate change'.

But while the iconic images might be of the polar ice caps melting, paediatrician Dr Tony Waterston warns there will also be a devastating human health cost unless we reduce our carbon footprint.

Have we heard too much about climate change? Are people switching off the subject, particularly as we in the UK go through the coldest, snowiest winter for many years, and the media is full of stories about the climate sceptics?

To a paediatrician, this would be a devastating response, coming just as health professionals are accepting not only that lives are being lost by global warming, but that the potential health benefits of a low carbon lifestyle would be very, very big.

Little has been said in the media about climate change and health - usually what we hear about is polar bears, loss of the ice cap, dying species and flood risks.

But much hard data has come out in recent months to show that health is being hit now.

The Lancet medical journal has had two special editions on the subject during the past year, which show that children, the most vulnerable in any community, are already dying in large numbers in poor countries as a result of a warming world.

Women involved in agricultural work are also severely affected.

Disease increase

What will happen?

There will be increases in malnutrition and malaria, with flooding and diarrhoeal disease up next.

Malnutrition is already linked with most deaths in the developing world, and is increasing as a result of the effect of climate change on food crops.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), climate change is projected to increase the percentage of the population of Mali at risk of hunger from 34% to 64-72% by the 2050s.

Both droughts and flooding will become more common and both interfere with growing seasons especially in countries already prone to such disasters.

And malaria will be more common as the mosquito which carries it moves into countries which were formerly too cold. Dengue, another severe tropical infectious disease also spread by mosquitoes, will similarly increase.

Health benefits

Mothers will also be affected by the same conditions, and if they become ill or die then there will be a knock-on effect on their children.

The countries most concerned are those where children are already dying in substantial numbers: Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, in particular Bangladesh, and low-lying island states in the Pacific.

A WHO assessment of the burden of disease caused by climate change suggested that the modest warming that has occurred since the 1970s was already causing over 140,000 excess deaths annually by the year 2004.

So doctors are increasingly determined to do something to prevent global warming, particularly as the health benefits of low carbon living are huge.

Reduced dependence on motor traffic will mean less pollution and reduced road accidents; more walking will lead to less obesity and reduced heart attacks; and less meat eating (since growing animals to eat is a huge contributor to global warming) will mean lower cholesterol and perhaps fewer cancers.

Doctors united

This doesn't mean everyone giving up meat! But just one meat-free day a week could make a difference to health as well as to the climate.

What can doctors do to help their patients and the government understand that low carbon living offers a great future?

Over the years, doctors have taken a lead in setting health priorities, on topics from sewers and drains to immunisation, smoking and alcohol and road traffic accidents.

Now doctors both locally and globally have united under the Climate and Health Council (CHC). Top doctors in the UK are calling on the NHS to reduce its carbon footprint and the government to set higher targets for reduction of carbon emissions to avoid a worsening health crisis worldwide.

And crucially, doctors are curbing their well-known love of travelling by holding video conferences instead, and bringing together medics from India, Africa and Europe for educational meetings without leaving a carbon footprint.

The power of a good example?


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.