Climate change and health

G Magazine

Climate change is coughing up some pretty worrying ramifications for our health.

Climate change concern

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As an asthma sufferer, 24-year-old Daniel Harris doesn't need scientists to convince him that climate change could soon impact his personal health. "I was fine until I was 19, but I've been in respiratory arrest five times over the last five years. I have to stay inside if the neighbours mow their lawn, because dry grass seems to trigger it, and bushfire season is a problem due to the increased pollution in the air."

While Harris' situation is serious, life is about to get a whole lot tougher for the world's 300 million asthma sufferers. The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts today's 250,000 annual asthma deaths will increase by almost 20 per cent in the next 10 years, unless urgent actions to curb climate change are taken.

Shocking it may be, but this is just one disease at the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg. Researchers warn we can expect thousands more deaths from heatwaves, storms and other extreme weather events to occur; challenges to our food yields and access to water will put pressure on our nutritional health; and geographic borders for insect-borne diseases like malaria and dengue will shift dramatically.

Unsurprisingly, developing countries are predicted to be hit harder than the developed world, but in Harris' experience, the weather doesn't respect border control. "My asthma has gotten worse in recent years as the difference between high and low temperatures has increasingly fluctuated. I'm absolutely worried about climate change," he says.

According to WHO, we all should be: the WHO Director-General recently declared climate change the biggest health issue humans will face in the next century. But Australia's leading scientist on climate change and health, Tony McMichael, from the Australian National University, is just one of many specialists frustrated that the climate change debate has been too narrow for too long.

"Collectively, we have a naive misunderstanding of where good health actually comes from. Individual choices and behaviours are important, and so are a few genes, but the bedrock of population health lies in the natural environment: the processes that ensure we have food, fresh water flows, reasonable stability of infectious disease patterns and social stability."

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