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How climate change is hurting our health


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It’s no secret that the long term environmental damage inflicted upon the planet is having negative repercussions for all of us, and one alarming consequence is the damaging effect climate change is having on human health.

Photo of Brown Bare Tree on Brown Surface during DaytimeImage Credit: Pexels

The Environmental Audit Committee has recently launched an inquiry into the effect that the escalating climate change crisis is having on human health and the threats that the crisis poses for the future.


In the last decade, environmental concerns have topped various lists of threats to global stability, overtaking both economic collapse and international conflict. It is easy to see why climate change has become prioritised in recent years. 


Extreme climate events , which include hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, have brought the threat of climate change to the forefront of everyone’s minds. According to Swiss Re, The economic losses from global disasters were estimated to be $306 billion or £233 billion in 2017. That number has doubled from 2016 when it was estimated to be $188 billion or £143 billion. 

 Hurricane Harvey

Image Credit: SC National Guard on Flickr

The ever-increasing threat of extreme weather is a pressing reminder that climate change is having a direct effect on our lives right now. Global natural disasters have already caused an unthinkable number of deaths. Ten years ago in 2009, The Guardian reported that 300,000 people were being killed by global warming per year. According to the United Nations, it is now estimated that 22.5 million people are displaced annually by climate or weather related disasters.


Warmer climates make for optimum growing conditions for disease-causing bacteria, allowing dangerous illnesses like malaria and dengue fever to flourish. The ever-increasing warm seasons only exacerbate the problem, as the transmission periods for the diseases are being prolonged.


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), diarrhoeal disease is the 'second leading cause of death in children under five', killing around 525,000 children in that age group every year. In a study of Peruvian children, there was found to be a strikingly strong correlation between environmental temperature increases and the increased spread of diarrhoeal diseases.


What does this mean for the UK?


It is predicted that as a result of rising sea levels, flooding will increase dramatically in future years, becoming not only more frequent, but also more severe. Now, the wettest days in Britain see on average 17% more rainfall than in previous years and it is expected that by 2100 seas levels in London will rise by a shocking 1.15 metres. 


So far, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have announced plans to spend around £2.6 billion on flood defences between 2015 and 2021, in the hope of protecting 300,000 homes in high-risk areas. This will be achieved through a combination of natural flood defences, including planting trees and restoring heathlands, as well as artificial measures such as dam building. Next year, DEFRA are expected to publish a long-term policy detailing plans for a 50 year flood prevention strategy.

 Stafford Flooding (1)

Stafford Flooding 2008/ Image Credit: William Hook on Flickr.

In November last year, Michael Gove said, “it will not always be possible to prevent every flood. We cannot build defences to protect every single building or re-enforce every retreating coastline”. With this in mind, the government will also need to prepare for people in high flood risk areas to be evacuated where defence measures are not possible.


Rise in Temperatures

England experienced its hottest summer on record last year and it is highly likely that temperatures will continue to rise each year thanks to global warming. 


According to a report by the the journal of Epidemiology and Community Healthclimate change is expected to increase the number of heat related deaths in the UK by 257% by the 2050s. Higher temperatures would make working conditions unbearable, particularly those involving manual labour. Working in excess heat can increase the risks of cardiovascular, respiratory and renal diseases and will inevitably lead to a lack of productivity in industry as people are forced to take more breaks to prevent dehydration and exhaustion.


According to a report published by the government in 2018, '20% of homes and  90% of hospital wards are thought to be at risk of overheating in the current climate'. With an ageing population in Britain, the threat of overheating becomes all the more pressing. Urgent action is needed to prevent overheating both in homes and workspaces. Urban planning needs to be adjusted to incorporate heat reduction methods. 


The government has authorised an independent evaluation of Public Health England’s Heatwave Plan for England, which assesses and attempts to manage the risks of overheating. The plan will provide advice for homeowners and businesses about how to respond to hot weather. Public Health England also published a poster in May 2016 warning of the dangers of overheating, although given that this was nearly three years ago, this could do with updating.


Higher temperatures, particularly in summer months, are also predicted to increase the number of outdoor activities people engage in. This in turn increases the risks of ultraviolet radiation and air pollution, both of which are getting worse as a result of environmental damage. 


What is being done?

The UK has prided itself on being one of the leaders in tackling climate change, having reduced their emissions by almost 40% since 1990, however there is still a long way to go to reduce the damage that has already been done. It has been 11 years since the UK published the landmark Climate Change Act in 2008 and after agreeing to the global Paris Agreement in 2015 it would seem  that the UK is serious about reducing the effects of climate change. In his speech last year, Michael Gove announced that the UK would be extending help internationally to assist developing countries in  reducing their greenhouse emissions. However, while there is a lot of pledges to change, I haven't seen much evidence of action.


In his speech, Gove referred to the UK being the third largest world aid donor, stating, “we are a world leader in supporting international development, both financially and through technical assistance.” Gove went on to state that £6 billion of funding had been earmarked from 2016 and 2020 to assist developing countries in fighting climate change and reducing the devastating effects that come with it. 


The UK is indeed taking steps towards international collaboration in the fight against climate change, but some are questioning whether they could be doing more. After other countries are now beginning to take more  significant measures to fight climate change, it begs the question: why is the UK not doing more? 


Elsewhere in Europe, the French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot announced that by 2023 France would ban all coal power stations and instead invest €4 billion in boosting energy efficiency. However, in Augugst of 2018, Hulot resigned from the position. According to France 24, this was due to ' an "accumulation of disappointments " over the inadequacy of steps to tackle climate change, defend biodiversity and address other environmental threats'. 


Image Credit: MPCA Photos on Flickr

Moreover, France also plans to ban all petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040. Similarly, Norway will ban the sale of all petrol and diesel powered cars by 2025 and the Netherlands will follow suit by 2025.

2019 has been the year when Climate change finally seems to have come to the forefront of the news, especially with Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes.

With increasing calls to action from a more environmentally-aware public the Government is under more and more pressure to implement change and deliver results. Hopefully, it will pay off.


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