Global climate change and health risks

Public health experts, including researchers, practitioners and policy makers from Emory, CARE, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other public and private organizations met at Emory recently for a symposium focusing on the health risks associated with global climate change.

Climate change is affecting the growth of crops, access to water, floods, malnutrition, and the prevalence of disease.

The goal was to form an agenda to develop the tools, policies, and approaches needed to address climate health risks and incorporate climate change adaptation into global health and development work.

And for good reason: right now climate change is contributing to the destruction of livelihoods and the aggravation of social inequalities, said speaker Jean-Michel Vigreux. Vigreux, CARE’s senior vice president of program quality and impact, said climate change is affecting the growth of crops, access to water, floods, malnutrition, and the prevalence of disease–especially climate sensitive disease. All this, he says, disproportionately affects the poor and other vulnerable populations.

Meanwhile, epidemiologist George Luber, CDC’s associate director for global climate change for the National Center for Environmental Health, says the explosion of recent activity around climate change is a reflection of the maturation of the science. It used to be much of the emphasis surrounding climate change focused on whether climate change was truly occurring and whether humans were driving it.

Now, says Luber, we’re confronting a different set of questions: What is the rate and magnitude of climate change? What do we know about sudden and rapid climate change and tipping points? How do we mitigate green house gases? And most importantly, he says, what are the ways in which humans and natural systems can adapt to these changes with the acknowledgment that these changes are occurring and they are going to occur at rates we are not accustomed to?

Despite all these unanswered questions, a few things are apparent, says Luber. “Many of the fundamental determinants of health will be affected by climate change,” he says. We will get a range of human health impacts that are associated with climate change: from the effects of heat waves, storms, and air pollution to subtle changes in ecosystems that will drive the redistribution of infectious diseases and all the way downstream to the impacts that these ecologic changes have on food systems, food security, and access to clean and safe water.

We need to change the dialogue in public health with regard to climate change, says Luber. “It can’t be about polar bears and glaciers, it has to be about people. And we have to change that dialogue and highlight the fact these changes are not going to happen in 2100 or 2200, they’re happening now, and they’re happening in our cities, so we need to develop communications strategies to impress that on people.”

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