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Climate Change and Human Health


This chapter focuses on the consequences to human health from climate change. We argue that the prospects for global human health are more ominous than most informed activists for global health realise. Unsurprisingly, risks to human health increase with the severity of climate change. After reviewing the history of the concerns about climate change and health, the chapter reviews some of the “primary” (heatwaves and other extreme weather events), “secondary” (kidney disease) and “tertiary” (large-scale violence) health risks. The mental health effects of some of these issues, which can arise in association with any of these categories, are also discussed. We also mention some possible effects, specific to children. Healthcare’s own considerable carbon footprint and resource consumption are described, with suggestions for improvement. While the focus of the chapter is mostly global, we briefly mention air pollution from coal-fired electricity generation in Australia, where a comparatively high proportion of electricity is generated by this method.

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  1. 1.

    Many scientists now call this dangerous era the Anthropocene (see Chap. 2).

  2. 2.

    In the thermo-dynamic sense.

  3. 3.

    Until 2014, coal-fired power stations in NSW were only permitted to emit up to 175 mg/m3 of SO2.

  4. 4.

    “At the worst, global ecosystems will be unable to adapt to a rapidly changing climate, world food production will collapse, and coastal areas will be inundated by rapidly rising sea levels. Such end-of-the-world sketches are familiar, usually in relation to AIDS or nuclear war, but there is an inevitability about global warming, which stems not from human behaviour or human error but from the radiative properties of atmospheric releases and the fundamental laws of physical science” (Anonymous 1989).

  5. 5.

    A term coined by McMichael who is widely recognised as securing the place of health in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 1996 onwards.

  6. 6.

    Especially in Nicaragua and El Salvador, where the rate has been found to be over 20 times that of climatically comparable, geographically proximal countries such as Costa Rica and Cuba (Ordunez et al. 2014).

  7. 7.

    Even under conservative, low-carbon emission scenarios, and where the Antarctic ice sheets remain stable this century, 150 to 250 million people (90% confidence interval) currently occupy global land below projected high tide lines for 2100. Under high emissions, the upper bound of this confidence interval increases to 630 million, in calculations that do not factor either population growth or coastal in-migration (Kulp and Strauss 2019).

  8. 8.

    In 1970, cyclone Bhola, a category 4 storm, killed at least 300,000 Bangladeshis and led to civil war (Hossain 2018). Adaptation to storms in coastal Bangladesh has been a spectacular success, in relative terms. Nonetheless, ongoing sea level rise, with other factors, threatens this.

  9. 9.

    For example, in warmer temperatures, the life cycle of some pathogens accelerates, potentially meaning a more intense epidemic in the same location, due to one or more additional cycles of transmission.

  10. 10.

    In this context the term “vector” generally refers to insects such as mosquitoes and ticks.

  11. 11.

    Climate change is neither necessary nor sufficient for such tertiary effects to arise, but can increase the likelihood.

  12. 12.

    By the German Advisory Council on Global Change, in 2007.

  13. 13.

    As well as the Syrian war, the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, was partly fuelled by climatic change (UNEP 2007).

  14. 14.

    Recently retired director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

  15. 15.

    The worst-case scenario for reusable equipment is to sterilise it using brown coal fired-electricity, such as is still generally the case in the Australian state of Victoria. In the adjacent state of Tasmania (where electricity is now over 100% renewable, with the surplus exported) there is no environmental case for using disposable equipment. The problem with the manufacture of equipment designed for single use is the feedstock. For example, all plastics are based on polymerising ethane or propane, which require (with present technology) fossil fuels (oil or gas). However, this feedstock could also be sourced from renewable sources (e.g. algae), powered by renewables.


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We wish to thank Drs Katherine Barraclough, George Crisp and Kingsley Faulkner.

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Correspondence to Colin D. Butler .

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Butler, C.D., Ewald, B., McGain, F., Kiang, K., Sanson, A. (2022). Climate Change and Human Health. In: Williams, S.J., Taylor, R. (eds) Sustainability and the New Economics. Springer, Cham.

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