For many people in Ireland, the state of our health system is of far greater concern than something as abstract as climate change and global warming. After all, it’s a ‘real’ issue as to whether or not your elderly relative or sick child can actually get a bed in hospital if and when they need it.
But as a new study published in the British Medical Journal this week has shown only too clearly, the biggest risk to public health both worldwide and here in Ireland in the coming decades will be climate-driven.
According to Prof Anthony McMichael of the Australian National University, climate change ‘is beginning to damage our natural life support system’. He pointed out that there are many risks to health associated with climate change, including the impact of heat waves, floods and wildfires, changes in infectious disease patterns, the effect of worsening food yields and the loss of livelihoods.
The World Health Organisation already estimates that 25% of the world’s disease burden is due to the contamination of air, water, soil and food, particularly in relation to respiratory infections and diarrhoea-related diseases.
Prof McMichael said that climate change will make these and other diseases worse. While it is unlikely to cause entire new diseases, it will alter the incidence, range, and seasonality of these existing health disorders. So, for example, by 2080, between 20 and 70 million more people could be living in malarial regions due to climate change.
The adverse health impacts will be much greater in low income countries. Poverty cannot be eliminated while environmental degradation exacerbates malnutrition, disease and injury. Food supplies need continuing soil fertility, climatic stability, freshwater supplies and ecological support, such as pollination. Infectious diseases cannot be stabilised in circumstances of climatic instability, refugee flows and impoverishment”, Prof McMichael explained.
He pointed out the fact that the relationship between health and the environment is complex. For example, as India modernises, it expects the health of its population to improve. However industrialisation means a rapidly increased level of coal burning and greater global emissions.
This in turn leads to climate change and all its attendant health risks.
Prof McMichael described the global changes we are seeing now as unprecedented in their scale. He said that healthcare systems should now develop strategies to deal with the resulting growing burden of disease and injury.
Any discussion in Ireland on planning for the future of our health system that fails to fully factor in the expected climate impacts is doomed to complete failure. Earlier this week we heard ‘government sources’ explaining how Ireland is planning to mount a vigorous campaign with the EU to have us dodge as much as possible of our share of reductions in carbon intensity.
This is not just bad politics; the health dimension shows that it is also monumental economic folly. Yes, there are costs involved in de-carbonising society, but to discount the massive downstream costs of our failure to act decisively is dishonest in the extreme.