The Herald (Bradenton, Fla.)  [Printer-friendly version]
November 18, 2005


Study: Climate change has adverse effect on people

[Rachel's introduction: Scientists say 150,000 people per year for
the past 30 years have died as a result of a gradually warming
planet, plus 5 million new cases of illness each year.]

By Susanne Rust, Knight Ridder Tribune News Service

MILWAUKEE -- Add one more item to the list of things that can be
affected by climate change and global warming: human health.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the World
Health Organization have compiled a series of studies showing that
people have been adversely affected by regional and global climate
change. They suspect 150,000 people per year, for the past 30 years,
have died as a result of a gradually warming planet. They say that
annually, 5 million cases of illness can be attributed to it, too.

And they think things are only going to get worse.

But they say governments can play a role in stemming these escalating
temperatures. And the countries most responsible for the warming
trend, such as the United States -- which contributes the largest
share of greenhouse gases per capita -- should play a role in

Looking across the globe, Jonathan Patz, a professor at UW's Nelson
Institute for Environmental Studies, and a team of climate and health
scientists combed through the scientific literature looking for
specific incidences of human-induced climate change and the ill
effects it has on people.

They found many.

Examples abound

They cited both broad-scale examples -- such as the 2003 European heat
wave that killed nearly 45,000 in two weeks -- and smaller-scale
examples, such as the local effects of "urban heat islands," a
phenomenon in which cities register temperatures five to 10 degrees
warmer than the outlying area.

In both cases, the warmer temperatures have been attributed to human
activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels or the design of urban

"Climate scientists think that human-induced climate change has
amplified the severity of recent extreme events such as Hurricane
Katrina and the 2003 European heat wave," which has led to a loss in
life, said Tony McMichael, director of the Australian National
University's Center for Epidemiology and Population Health, who was
not involved in the study.

But there is also "growing evidence that various infectious diseases
are changing their geographic range, seasonality and incidence rate in
association with ongoing climatic changes," he said.

Indeed, mosquitoes, ticks and sandflies -- common vectors of disease -
all react to climate. For example, Patz's team found research that
showed an increase in cases of malaria in the highlands of Kenya
during periods of extreme heat variability. Another study they noted
documented a correlation between warming trends in Ethiopia and
malarial infections.

Patz said researchers who have observed West Nile virus' spread across
the United States have documented a correlation of its movement with
hotter and drier weather -- the peculiar weather of choice for the
primary carrier of the virus, the Culex mosquito.

"Climate change is not just another minor environmental problem and
incidental health hazard," McMichael said. "A change in Earth's
climatic conditions will disrupt many of the natural systems that
affect human health," including regional food production, infectious
disease agents, patterns of heat stress and exposure to extreme
weather events, such as cyclones, floods and fires.

The victims

Unfortunately, regions that will bear the biggest brunt of these
changes, such as Africa, not only produce some of the lowest per
capita emissions of greenhouse gases, said Patz, but have the least
ability to adapt and deal with climate change.

"Herein lies an enormous global ethical challenge," he said.

"This is complex and difficult stuff to study," said Howard Frumkin,
director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But he said the paper was
important because it covers the "broad range of potential health
impacts" caused by climate change.

Moral obligation

According to climate scientists, the Earth's temperature is likely to
increase between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the
century. As a result, the seas will rise and the number of people at
risk from flooding by coastal storm surges is projected to increase.

One of the midrange scenarios that Patz and his colleagues
investigated predicts a 15.75-inch rise in sea level by 2080. That
rise would increase the number of people at risk from storms and
surges from a current level of 75 million to 200 million.

Patz thinks that it'll be communities and regions along the Pacific
and Indian coastlines, as well as sub-Saharan Africa, that will be
most affected.

On Nov. 28, global leaders will convene in Montreal at the first
meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, which came
into effect in February. The United States has not signed the treaty.
But Patz is hoping his work will demonstrate the moral obligation of
countries with higher per capita emissions to adopt a leadership role
in reducing the health threats of global warming.

Copyright 2005 Bradenton Herald