Health Impacts of Climate Change

By Peder Digre | @pederdigre

LuAnne Thompson, Director of the UW Program on Climate Change and Professor of Oceanography, headed a session entitled, “Health Impacts of Climate Change.” Dr. Thompson introduced the session as an excursion into the “impacts of climate change, how we understand them, and how we predict them.”

We know what climate change means, but we do not know how climate change will impact the burden of disease. The distribution of carbon emissions are disproportionately weighted toward the United States and Europe while the burden of disease that results from the climate change from these carbon emissions disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations in Africa.

Dr. Thompson presents Kenya and Somalia as models for what we might see in the future as a result from climate change. We can see them as a “harbinger of what we might see in the future.” Prolonged droughts are interspersed with heavy rains that result in flooding and loss of topsoil. “What we need to do if produce more resilient populations to change.” The problem isn’t the heavy rain, it’s that people are living in tents that are damaged by large rainstorms.

Climate change will result in a general decrease in precipitation while temperature will increase. This means that productive crop area will go down and farmers will be unable to survive and will relocate to cities to provide for their families.

In a recent trip to Kenya, Dr. Thompson was amazed to find that extremely uneducated people are very receptive to the idea of climate change and they attribute basically all changes that they see in the weather, especially the increasing drought to climate change. “The culture is much more open to talking about climate change.” Continuing her discussion with Kenyan farmers, they disclosed that most of their concern is about the relationship between cash crops and food crops and who controls the crops produced. Farmers do not have control over their own crops.

A large amount of the session was spent watching a documentary produced by BBC called, “Hot Cities”. The focus of the segment of the documentary viewed was the city of Dakar, Senegal and the production of food in Senegal. More and more people arrive in Dakar to make a living as the productivity of crops decreases with the changing climate. Expounding the effects of climate change are the attempts to garnish more farmland by cutting down trees. “We [farmers] want to stop [cutting down trees], but we cannot.” They are fighting for the survival of their family and their drought-stricken country.

With the farmland being lost, farmers are unable to provide enough food for the country of Senegal and as a result, Senegal imports about 80% of the rice it needs. This makes a basic food staple expensive and some families are only able to afford one meal a day.

The effects of malnourishment and the inability to prevent against disease and chronic health conditions are greatly exacerbated by the mass migration to the cities to produce some of the most densely populated cities in the world.

The big question regarding climate change and what we can do is how do we weigh health outcomes against economics and impact on future generations? We, as people who are economically oriented, typically think of the impacts of climate change in economic outcomes. However, we need to think about what is happening now and what will happen to health outcomes on vulnerable populations.

“There is no easy way out.” People across the whole world must adapt and live in the reality of climate change. It is affecting our lives every day and will play an ever-growing role in our lives.

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