Climate change and human health: how COP21 has helped

By Joseph J. Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

The potential adverse impacts of climate change on natural and human environments are prominent in the media, but impacts on human health are seemingly discussed less often. In The Geographical Journal, Papworth et al. (2015) write about the multifaceted nature of climate change in relation to human health. Examples of health impacts include: heatstroke, injuries from disasters, infectious diseases (water-borne and vector-borne), malnutrition, food poisoning, lung diseases, and allergies (see their figure 3, which also lists required adaptations; p. 415). A key impact also listed therein is that of mental health, which reduces resilience of individuals and societies to the aforementioned health problems and environmental change. For example, links between mental health and climate change have been recently reported in Australian farmers.

Drought and flooding can have huge impacts on agricultural landscapes and, consequently, human health. Western Madagascar, author’s own (© Joseph J. Bailey).

Drought and flooding can have huge impacts on agricultural landscapes and, consequently, human health. Western Madagascar, author’s own (© Joseph J. Bailey).

The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris in December 2015, which, amongst much else, miraculously forged an emissions agreement between 187 countries, has helped to more prominently bring some of these issues surrounding human health to the public eye. The decisions made at COP21 may help us to mitigate, and adapt to, future impacts of climate change on human health. Indeed, a central aspect of the agreement is “the right to health” and the director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Maria Neira, said that the Paris agreement “pushes countries to develop adaptation plans that will protect human health from the worst impacts of climate change”. More broadly, WHO referred to COP21 as “a historic win for human health”.

The success of COP21 in relation to human health will not be measurable for some time, but it has hopefully put in place the infrastructure required to encourage adaptive approaches to climate change from local to international scales that will ultimately benefit human health, and the health of the wider environment. Some people are cynical of us actually preventing a temperature rise more than 2°C this century. However, I would argue that the fact that so many countries came together, spoke, and made a range of legally binding commitments is highly encouraging. It represents progress on a path towards greater use of renewable energy and more sustainable policies and practices, which can only be a good thing for human, and indeed the planet’s, health as we move forwards, even if the specific targets are not met.

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books_icon Papworth, A., Maslin, M. & Randalls, S. (2015) Is climate change the greatest threat to human health? The Geographical Journal, 181, 413–422. (View online).

60-world2 WHO report: “New climate change agreement a historic win for human health”. (Online, last accessed 15th Jan 2016)

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