Exploring Human Potential

The Impact of Global Warming On Health: An Endless Summer Ahead?

Mike Magee

In 2009 President Obama joined other global leaders in New York City for the Opening Session of the UN. One of the transboundary issues discussed was Global Warming.

All agreed that the Kyoto Protocol had failed. It failed because the target to decrease emissions by some 5% was too low. It failed because large transitional nations like India and China were excluded. And it failed because US leadership opted out. (1,2)

Predictably world leaders now have a deeper hole out of which they must dig. In doing so they would do well to focus on health as an outcome measure, and define strategies to manage the obvious consequences of this impending crisis. Where Kyoto focused on strategies to mitigate rises in carbonization of the environment, the chief culprit in global warming, by both reducing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere and creating carbon sinks to draw off the substance, we’re now faced with a more serious challenge. Not only do we need to plan mitigation, but we also need to prepare and resource intervention to deal with inevitable, at least short term, human injury and disease fall-out. (3)

Record temperatures around the globe this summer have resulted in loss of life and livelihood. Beyond this, climate change has begun to impact human health in the following ways:

1. It is increasing natural disasters from storms, floods, drought, wildfires and excessive heat. These realities in turn cause direct injuries, mass migrations, and diversion of resources which might normally go to societal infrastructure. (3)

2. Rising temperatures are expanding the range of various disease vectors. including mosquitos, ticks and rodents. Malaria will occur in higher altitudes then before, and dengue fever will appear farther north.Ticks are now second only to mosquitoes as carries of human disease. (4)

3. Food and water borne illnesses are becoming more prevalent due to the higher temperatures which encourage their occurence and spread. (3)

4. Air quality has declined as ozone, particulate matter, and allergens combined with heat create a deadly brew. Seniors as a result suffer more cardiac and respiratory disease, and youngsters more asthma. (3,5)

5. Water scarce areas are expanding faster creating famine, hygienic failure, migration and violence. Lack of availability of clean safe water expands the already serious burden of water borne diseases. (6)

6. Decline in water quantity and quality negatively compromises production of crops, livestock and fisheries, expanding the number of global citizens who suffer hunger and famine. (3)

The list is logical and the impact predictable. All the more surprising then that global health leaders have been largely at the periphery of environmental policy, and that environmental policy leaders, in the wake of the BP Oil Spill have been laser focused on the energy sector but largely ignored the health sector. (7)

I expect that is about to change.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee


1. Max A. Obama’s climate change team debuts at UN talks. Huffington Post Web site. March 29, 2009.

2. Wiley LF and Gostin LO. The International Response To Climate Change. JAMA. Sept. 16, 2009. 302:11. pp1218-1220

3. Confalonieri U, Menne B, Akhtar R; et al. Human health. In: Parry ML, Canziani OF, Palutikof JP, van der Linden PH, Hanson CE, eds. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 2007:291-431.

4. Pascual M, Ahumada JA, Chaves LF, Rodo X, Bouma M. Malaria resurgence in the East African highlands: temperature trends revisited. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A .2006;103(15):5829-5834.

5. Beggs PJ, Bambrick HJ. Is the global rise of asthma an early impact of anthropogenic climate change? Environ Health Perspect. 2005;113(8):915-919.

6. Bates BC, ed, Kundzewicz ZW, ed, Wu S, ed, Palutikof JP, ed. 2008: Climate Change and Water. Geneva, Switzerland: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Secretariat; 2008.

7. Gostin LO. Why rich countries should care about the world’s least healthy people. JAMA. 2007;298(1):89-92.

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