Climate change: ‘It’s really hard to remain hopeful’
The health impacts are already at crisis levels in the most vulnerable countries
The carcass of a dead camel in Nayuu, northern Kenya. Pastoralist people are seeing their animals perish because of a lack of water and grazing due to the prolonged drought. Photograph: David O’Hare/Trócaire
Violent storms, droughts and wildfires regularly hit our news screens but the effect that climate change is having on our health, and how that will impact in differing ways around the world, has not got much airtime.
Prof Pat Goodman of Technological University Dublin is part of a team of scientists based across 28 countries who recently looked at the effect increasing temperatures will have on deaths related to either heatwaves or cold snaps. They found that increased levels of global carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, led to increased mortality in most countries due to heat-related deaths.
Ireland was among just four countries to buck this trend. “Projections for Ireland are that if temperatures go up, less people will die in winter and more people will die in summer but the net effect is that we have less people dying,” according to Goodman. This is because Ireland has a high winter mortality at present.
Before we get out the plastic-free party poppers, Goodman warns there are “a whole myriad of other ways in which these increasing temperatures will affect people” including water supplies, storms, flooding, skin cancer and vector-borne disease. “There are loads of challenges for us within Europe and just because we’re a little island, doesn’t mean we’re going to escape it all.”
The researchers also predicted the effect greenhouses gases will have on temperatures in each country. They found temperatures increased across the board, with the smallest increase in Ireland and largest in Canada.
It only takes a few days of very hot weather to start to push people over the edge, according to Goodman, whereas it takes a lot longer with cold snaps. As well as heat-related illnesses such as dehydration and heat stroke, heat is associated with cardiovascular and respiratory disease, adverse birth outcomes and poor mental health.
Tropical countries in southeast Asia were worst affected. In the increasingly unlikely scenario that temperatures stay within the 1.5 degree goal of the Paris Agreement, excess mortalities in the Philippines and Vietnam would rise by more than 12 and 15 per cent, respectively.
Goodman explains that Vietnam’s predicted temperature rise is similar to Ireland, but “the vulnerability of the population is a lot higher, suggesting that the population doesn’t respond very well to rising temperatures”. Countries that had higher predicted deaths in the study spent less on health per capita and had a larger elderly population.
“The population in Europe is aging so the susceptible population is rising,” says Goodman. This change in the numbers of vulnerable people wasn’t accounted for in their data. “If we look at rising population and aging population, then susceptibility is going to increase.”
This is also a concern of Trócaire policy adviser Cliona Sharkey, who notes that women and children are also very vulnerable to the effects of climate change. “In terms of incidence, childhood undernutrition is projected to be the biggest cause of additional deaths as a result of climate change from 2030.” That is according to the Worth Health Organisation.
Though the study only looked at temperature increases, Sharkey says these health effects will be exacerbated by other aspects of climate change. “It’s important to realise when we look to future impacts that the impacts today are already at crisis levels on the ground in the most vulnerable countries.”
One notable absence in the study is a lack of any African country. This “leaves a huge gap in terms of understanding, given the vulnerability of the continent”, Sharkey notes.
Climate change is projected to have some of the biggest impacts in Africa, particularly in sub-Saharan countries, according to Goodman. For these countries, the scientist says it’s a data reliability problem and “there’s no point in including data if you can’t stand over it”.
Conducting research across 28 countries restricted the group in other ways also. Dr Jean O’Dwyer, an environmental health scientist in University College Cork, feels “mortality isn’t the best variable to look at climate and health, especially in developed countries where there are good health services that reduce the mortality burden”; she suggests morbidity, which is the incidence of disease, would give a better representation of the actual impact.
This again was a data issue. Goodman points out morbidity data is not very reliable in some countries. “If you’ve got countries with a poor health service, you may have very little morbidity data because people are not being hospitalised.”
O’Dwyer is researching the impact of climate change on human health. It’s already having a massive effect on Irish health, according to the scientist, with air and water quality being two areas directly impacted.
“Air quality is directly correlated with temperature.” In hot weather this is due to dust and dispersion of aerosols in the atmosphere that people can breathe in, she says.
Our public water supply could also be impacted. This is because as temperatures increase, the formation of a potential carcinogen, trihalomethanes (THMs), also increases. O’Dwyer says there is “typically about 50 failures a year because of trihalomethanes and we don’t want that in our water”.
These findings are stark, however, and scientists cannot solve the problem alone.
“Climate change is such a complicated issue and then when you bring in health, it gets extremely complicated,” Sharkey says. “It’s a kaleidoscope problem. We need targeted multidisciplinary research and policy in place.”
Goodman feels their study “may be a kick to policymakers so we stop and reverse the greenhouse gas emissions. If we don’t do anything, these are the various scenarios we will get.”
The countries in this international study have vastly different mortality predictions dependent on their location, population vulnerability and health expenditure. With Ireland getting off relatively lightly compared to even its continental neighbours, are we doing enough in the fight against climate change?
Trócaire policy adviser Cliona Sharkey says we are “currently taking far more than our fair share of the safe atmospheric space”, citing the recent Central Statistics Office report showing Ireland has the third-highest emissions of greenhouse gases per capita in the EU.
“There is a responsibility on all of us to think about how our actions on a day-to-day basis impact on our environment. What we are doing here is having a huge impact on the most vulnerable people in the world who have done least to cause it.”
Individual responsibility has its limits. Sharkey says “we are dependent on changes to our system and structures” which has to come from Government decisions and investments.
She has first-hand experience of the effects of climate change in Malawi. “What really gets me is that you can see how hard people are working. People are trying to adapt to ensure the viability of their future.”
However, it is what we do in the countries with most responsibility that will determine the viability of these communities’ future, she adds. “When I’m sitting here in my office looking at the science and political response, it’s really hard to remain hopeful.”
Though, with the recent upswing in grassroots momentum for climate action, Sharkey is more hopeful now. “We can’t underestimate the potential of people power.”