Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Climate Change and Health

Chronicles of a Science Policy Intern

Happy Earth Day! For the past few months, I have been researching the health impacts of climate change as part of my internship. This is an incredibly broad topic, and it was challenging to narrow it down to a focus area for a 20 minute presentation to my coworkers. So in honor of Earth Day, and to celebrate the completion of my project, we're posting about climate change and health.

Climate change has been well documented and is widely agreed upon by most scientists, though it can still be politically divisive. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the premier working group on climate change that is overseen by the UN, released a report that compiled the best scientific projections about climate change up until that point. The report stated that 11 of the 12 years from 1995-2006 rank among the warmest years since we began recording global surface temperature in 1850.

Temperature fluctuations are part of climate’s natural variability, but there has been a general warming trend over the past century. IPCC projections suggested that global average air temperature could rise from between 2-11.5 degrees F and sea level could rise between 7 inches and 2 feet by 2100.

However, scientists are now warning that there has been a noticeable speed-up in the causes and symptoms of climate change. For example, newer local projections suggest that in New York, mean annual temperatures may increase by up to 3 degrees and average sea levels could rise by 2 to 5 inches by the 2020s. By the 2080s, temperatures could increase by up to 7 ½ degrees, and sea levels could rise 12 to 23 inches, a much higher rate of change than the IPCC predicted.

Climate change is already affecting health, and will continue to do so as it progresses. The EPA recently announced that greenhouse gases, which are a major contributor to climate change, are hazardous to human health. The good news is, this opens the door for regulations of greenhouse gases, so hopefully we don't wind up in this scenario, with temperatures in parts of the world increasing as much as 8 degrees Celsius, or almost 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Imagine the difference between a 75 degree and 90 degree day... for extended periods of time.

Obviously, those sorts of climate changes are going to have noticeable implications for human health. Over the next few days, we'll be looking at a number of the ways that climate change could alter human health.

This is Part 1 of 7 in our Climate Change and Health series.
Part 1 - Climate Change and Health
Part 2 - Heat-Related Issues
Part 3 - Malaria
Part 4 - Lyme Disease
Part 5 - Mental Health
Part 6 - Water-borne Disease
Part 7 - Extreme Weather Events

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