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Climate change and the damage to our health

Extreme events such as heatwaves and flooding have become more and more common in recent years. If we haven’t experienced them ourselves, we may have heard about them on the news.

They are having a substantial impact on people’s health which has led to experts calling on governments to take emergency action to tackle the catastrophic harm to health from climate change.

Ahead of a webinar on 15 October, we asked climate expert, Professor Glenn McGregor from our Department of Geography, about the risks, the future and what can be done.

Why are we seeing more extreme weather events such as heatwaves and flooding?

An increase in global mean temperature also means an increase in the number of high temperature extremes and therefore the likelihood of an increased frequency in heatwaves as has been observed over the past 50 years.

Global warming is expected to intensify the hydrological cycle and lead to increases in evaporation, atmospheric humidity, and precipitation which increases the potential for flooding.

What are the likely direct health risks from climate change?

Death, illness or injury from extreme events such as hurricanes and floods as well as heatwaves. We also expect changes in patterns of mortality and morbidity for a range of health outcomes such as water-borne diseases like diarrhoea, vector-borne illnesses such as dengue fever as well as food-borne infections and respiratory diseases.

Are there any indirect consequences for people’s health?

There are significant indirect impacts and they are wide-ranging. They might include malnutrition from decreases in food production and nutrition, disruption to important infrastructure that may affect access to health services, and mental ill health for people affected by climate-related extreme events. These events can also lead to people being forced to leave their homes or communities and other social disruption including conflict.

What needs to be done to reduce the health risks from climate change?

There a number of solutions that could help to protect people from the risks of climate change and extreme climate events.

For example, it’s important that we strengthen health systems and infrastructure, implement warning systems for extreme climate events, and have strategies that lessen the exposure to climate sensitive diseases.

This means improvements in water and air quality, sanitation and hygiene, control programmes for disease vectors such as mosquitoes, and developing sustainable food systems. The design of buildings and cities should also be looked at to make them more resilient to climate extremes.

What would it mean for public health if we manage to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050?

This would increase the chances of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement and keeping global temperature rise this century below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This will have clear benefits for public health and the level of incidence of health outcomes that are both directly or indirectly climate sensitive, such as the scale of heat-related illness or malnutrition arising from the impact of drought on food production and nutritional value.

What can people do individually to help reduce climate change?

Transition away from fossil fuel based energy sources to those based on renewable resources (e.g. solar and wind), improve insulation in homes, and the use of low emission vehicles. We can also try to rely less on our cars, reduce solid fuel use for our cooking, buy locally produced food, and reduce meat in our diets. There is also potential to increase carbon sequestration through ‘greening’ our local environment.

The webinar “Climate change, extreme events and health risks” will take place on Friday 15 October at 8am (UK) / 3pm (Beijing) via Zoom.

Professor Glenn McGregor will be joined by Professor Tianjun Zhou who is a senior research scientist in the Institute of Atmospheric Physics (IAP) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Find out more

  • The webinar “Climate change, extreme events and health risks” will take place on Friday 15 October at 8am (UK) / 3pm (Beijing) via Zoom. You can register here
  • Watch this short video about our partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • Watch previous webinars in the series 
  • Find out more about our speakers – Professor Tianjun Zhou and Professor Glenn McGregor
  • Interested in COP26? Take a look at our COP26 playlist on YouTube