From luxury car-collecting influencers boasting about their ‘enormous emissions’ on Twitter, to fierce protests at Lützerath, Germany over lignite coal mining against the backdrop of an unprecedented energy crisis — the optics and politics of climate change have been less than sightly this past year.
Let’s put things in perspective. As a defining challenge of the 21st century, climate change has all the hallmarks of being a man-made disaster. The alarm raised from within the scientific community is no longer a Cassandran prophecy of doom, rather the widespread concern itself qualifies as a vaticinum ex eventu.
Catastrophic floods displacing thousands in the US, scorching wildfires in the UK and France, extreme heat in Australia and Pakistan, followed by devastating floods, droughts in Europe heralding an unbelievable ‘winter’ heatwave — together account for merely a few of the many recent outbursts of an irascible Mother Nature, while humanity keep belching out green houses gases.
Teetering on the edge, our existence is threatened by a failing balance between the natural forces that make up our planet. In this death-dealing reality which intersects on race, poverty, education, industry and the future of civilisation itself — human health and health care are no exceptions.
In fact, the present state of knowledge about climate change is that it has transformed the epidemiology of infectious diseases since the late nineteenth century.
Malaria, for example, is the biggest vector-borne disease cause of sickness and death worldwide. There were 241 million cases of malaria in 2020 and 627 thousand malaria deaths globally (WMR, 2020).
Higher temperatures promote higher mosquito-biting rates, shorten reproductive cycles and are expected to increase chances of survival in previously uninhabitable areas. Dengue viruses, just like malarial parasites, are temperature dependant in terms of their replication and spread.
Fifth warmest year on record
Despite 2022 being à La Niña period i.e. cooler-than-average water temperatures, the most recent data from the Copernicus Climate Change Service reveals that the world experienced its fifth warmest year on record.
Evidence shows that climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of warmer-than-average El Niño conditions which are associated with higher mortality and morbidity.
It is believed that the 2015 El Niño event provided an optimal climate for the Zika virus infection to disseminate. Moreover, rising temperatures have favoured the proliferation of Vibrio species causing outbreaks around the Baltic Sea, Spain, Chile and the US Pacific North-west.
Food security and access to safe drinking water — the very foundations of health — are under significant threat from climate change.
Malnutrition is bound to increase in the setting of extreme weather events, coastal inundation, desertification, etc. Increasing precipitation is associated with the spread of waterborne diseases primarily through contamination of both surface and underground drinking water supplies.
Ravaging trail of hurricanes
Microbiological findings have revealed that outbreaks of leptospirosis, cholera and dengue have lashed communities in the ravaging trail of hurricanes in the US.
Furthermore, the threat of rising sea-levels due to global warming looms large over human habitations, particularly those residing in the South-Pacific and similar low-lying areas. At the present rate, large-scale human displacement is becoming an imminent reality.
It is likely that, in the long run, modern surgical care will also be affected by climate change. Operating rooms work on electricity and numerous instruments require some form or energy to function.
If the world fails to adopt clean, sustainable sources of energy before it’s too late, access to modern surgical treatments will become crippled with limitations, or worse, completely lost in the foreseeable future.
Estimates predict that between 2030 and 2050, there will be an additional quarter of a million deaths per year globally due to climate-sensitive diseases (WHO).
Many a policy in favour of ‘green’ and ‘clean’ energy has found itself charred in the flames of political argumentation or pigeonholed due to corruption, short-sightedness and lackadaisical political will.
Far from requiring a siloed approach, the predicament of climate change needs an international solution guided by the latest science driven by sustainability. To embark on anything less than an intersectional global strategy is to court failure and, as a consequence, undermine human health itself.
Dr Aamir Amin is a medical doctor who writes on Health and Clinical Practice, vaccines, Covid-19 pandemic, drug addiction and climate change. He is based in London