Here are some frequently asked questions that come up when people discuss the health impacts of climate change.
- Who is most likely to be affected by the increased frequency and intensity of heatwaves?
The urban heat island profile of a region demonstrates that the average temperature increases progressively as you move away from the countryside and towards city centres. Downtown areas are more severely affected by rising temperatures, a phenomenon that has come to be known as “twin warming”. As a consequence of this “twin warming” phenomenon, people living in downtown areas are more susceptible to heatwaves and the homeless in these areas are at an even greater risk.
2. How can drought affect the mental health of those affected?
A strong sense of place is increasingly recognised as an important influence on the mental health of farmers. Prolonged drought as a result of low rainfall can lead to loss of ground cover vegetation and soil erosion. Loss of fertile land can severely affect the mental health of farmers that have a strong connection to their land. As was eloquently stated by Dr Neville Ellis at the Western Australian Health, Energy and Climate Change Symposium 2017, “when the land becomes degraded, the people living on the land also become degraded.” This has led to development of the concept of “solastalgia,” which can be simply thought of as the homesickness one feels whilst still being at home due to the gradual degradation of the their home environment. Farmers all over the globe are susceptible to solastalgia as are the Indigenous people like the Inuit and Torres Strait Islanders. For Indigenous populations like the Torres Strait Islanders, relocation (for example due to sea level rise) would represent a loss of cultural identity and a critical threshold that they might not be able to cope with.
3. How will climate change influence the spread of disease?
Climate change is likely to increase the severity and likelihood of extreme climate events such as floods, droughts and hurricanes, and these will clearly have a great impact on water supplies. Since most vector-borne infectious diseases are dependent on stagnant water for parasites to breed, changing the distribution of water will change the geographic area at risk.
Click here to find out more about how climate change will influence disease patterns.
4. What kind of impacts can climate change have on human health?
Any change in climate can have three types of impacts on our health and wellbeing:
- Direct primary impacts, usually caused by extreme weather conditions including drought, flood and hurricane.
- Secondary impacts that stem from food shortages, changes to water supplies and patterns of disease
- Tertiary risks such as psychological, nutritional, traumatic as well as conflicts resulting from war, migration and political instability.
These risks and impacts are summarised in the infographic below:
5. What are some of the main challenges to studying the relationship between climate change and health?
There are two primary challenges associated with research into this relationship:
- The enormous geographic and time scales related to health impacts which are typically unfamiliar to most researchers. Many health effects may only become visible after hundreds of years, and so new methods of investigation and observation must be used.
- Most health research is based on a comparison between an “exposed” group and an “unexposed group”. Since the effects of climate change are acting on a planetary scale, there are no obvious “unexposed” populations which we can compare against.
For effective research, we must think of new strategies and approaches that will elucidate the true extent of the impacts on our health.
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