A dose of reality needed on climate change issue
IPN Opinion article
The China Post (Taiwan)
LONDON -- Britain's Department of Health says we face killer heatwaves and the Royal College of Physicians president says "the effects of global warming on health could eclipse those of smoking, alcohol and obesity." Evoking heatwaves and tropical diseases such as malaria, doctors are adding their powerful voice to calls for deep cuts in carbon emissions to stabilise global temperatures. But if their aim is actually to improve health--particularly in poor countries--they would be hard pushed to get it more wrong. The relationship between climate and disease is less marked than is often claimed. 'Climate change poses a significant risk of the introduction of vector-borne diseases into Europe', says Paul Hunter, a professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia, citing malaria. But this ignores the vast range of human and ecological factors that determine the incidence of this disease. According to Professor Paul Reiter, an expert on insect-borne diseases and contributor to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 'there is no evidence that climate has played any role' in malaria. Reiter points out that malaria was endemic in Britain until the second half of the 19th century, when changes in agricultural practices, improved drainage and better housing caused a spontaneous decline of the disease as mosquitoes had fewer opportunities to bite people--while records show temperatures rose in this period. Professor Hunter, by contrast, cites the emergence of insect-borne chikungunya in Italy last summer as definitive evidence that climate change is increasing the risk of insect-borne diseases in Europe. However, according to a detailed study of the outbreak by Professor Reiter, the arrival of chikungunya in Europe is due to globalization not climate change--in particular the increase of intercontinental container shipping. The Department of Health says global warming will lead to more deaths from heatwaves in Britain, as the sick and elderly struggle with high temperatures. But we need perspective here. Professor Bill Keatinge, an expert on the effects of temperature on human physiology from London University, has shown that deaths do increase in the first few days of a heatwave but most of these are extremely ill people who were likely to die shortly anyway. The data shows that average mortality actually decreases during the later stages of heatwave. Moreover, humans have developed a range of ways coping with high temperatures, from siestas to air conditioning. Ask the Australians, who despite having far warmer climate than ours are not dropping like flies. In fact, cold weather is far more harmful because of the increased risk of respiratory infections, heart attacks and strokes. Britain has only 1,000 heat-related deaths every year, compared with 20,000 cold-related. However, cutting greenhouse gas emissions would be very bad for human health. According to calculations by Lombard Street Research, any global treaty that would stabilise the climate at today's temperatures would cost a total of £8 trillion--or 45% of the world's current annual economic output. Economic growth is an absolute pre-requisite for improved health. One study has shown that if economic growth in the developing world had been a mere 1.5% higher in the 1980s, at least 500,000 child deaths could have been prevented. This is because much of the disease burden in developing countries is a direct result of poverty. Diarrhoea, chest infections from burning wood and dung indoors, water-borne infections and malnutrition are the biggest killers of children--not the headline-grabbing malaria and AIDS. Britain eliminated malaria as a side-effect of increasing prosperity. People could afford windows in houses and separate barns for cattle, while farmers adopted practices such as tillage and field drainage which deprived the mosquito of feeding and breeding opportunities. It is no coincidence that malaria is currently confined to the poorest parts of the world, because these areas are the least able to afford such improvements. Mandatory caps on carbon emissions would be a betrayal of the sick in the world's poorest regions, because they would undermine the one mechanism--economic growth--which allows people to move beyond the primitive living conditions that encourage the spread of such diseases. A strong economy also helps us in Britain cope with the vagaries of our climate, by giving us the wealth to afford central heating, windows, warm clothing and even umbrellas. If British doctors are concerned about the effect of climate on health, the last thing they should be advocating is hobbling our economy and preventing the poor from getting richer. But maybe they are hoping to drum up more business by helping along a recession? Philip Stevens is director of policy at International Policy Network, a development think tank based in London.