Research Article: Climate change and health: Moving from theory to practice

Date Published: July 31, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Jonathan A. Patz, Madeleine C. Thomson

Abstract: In an Editorial discussing the Special Issue on Climate Change and Health, guest editors Jonathan Patz and Madeleine Thompson summarize key issues in the field and describe the significance of research studies included in the issue.

Partial Text: This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has produced five comprehensive assessments for the world’s governments; a health chapter has featured in all but the first assessment report, along with climate change impacts on our atmosphere, oceans, and landscapes. Research on the health risks from climate change has grown substantially, with findings suggesting that the global health gains achieved over the past half century are being undermined by climate change [1]. Hazardous exposure pathways are many, from heat waves and air pollution episodes to infectious diseases, malnutrition, forced migration, and conflict [2]. Impacts are experienced differently within segments of the population and between geographic locations based on biological, social, and economic vulnerabilities as well as the nature of the climate hazard.

This special issue of PLOS Medicine brings together the latest research across many of these health risk pathways, as well as highlighting at-risk populations, such as women [3], children [4], and small island populations [5]. New findings indicate that heat waves can affect cognitive abilities [6], rainfall extremes could increase sewage contamination in cities [7], warmer temperatures produce hazardous ozone air pollution [8], and wildfires, as occurred recently in California, have substantial adverse consequences for human health [9]. Some surprising findings from research studies have also emerged: countering the perceived potential benefit of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions on plant growth and food security [10], CO2-induced nutritional deficiencies have been highlighted [11].

While not new, the idea that, in addition to food choices and nutrition, energy choices and transportation planning relate to human health is a reminder of the importance of the Health in all Policies (HiAP) approach promoted by WHO [21]. The collective body of new research presented in this special issue of PLOS Medicine reinforces the need for such a systems-based approach; clearly, policies applied to electric power generation, transportation planning, and food systems must be regarded as public health policies. This holds both for the risks from and potential solutions to climate change.

In summary, multiple lines of evidence and research have shown climate change to be a threat to global health. At the same time, actions targeting the cause of climate change (reducing GHG emissions) offer large health benefits, especially in the area of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). The challenge is now to bring interventions to scale—practical action requires an informed health workforce, an engaged public, an HiAP approach involving many related sectors, new resources and new technologies, and financing equal to the task at hand. Cross-sector indicators by which to measure progress have been proposed [30]. With the falling price of clean energy technologies, economic forces are already steering society toward a low-carbon future [31]. However, the pace must be rapidly accelerated to assure the future health and well-being of populations across the globe, prioritizing the most vulnerable communities not only in high-income countries but also in low- and middle-income countries. To achieve this acceleration, tailored resources that can be used in teaching climate change and health must be developed and integrated into the core curricula of public health physicians, nurses and other health workers as a priority.



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