By Sabrina Tavernise, The New York Times, June 22, 2015
|Source: Indur M. Goklany and Julian Morris, 2011|
WASHINGTON — More people will be exposed to floods, droughts, heat waves and other extreme weather associated with climate change over the next century than previously thought, according to a new report in the British medical journal The Lancet.
The report, published online Monday, analyzes the health effects of recent episodes of severe weather that scientists have linked to climate change. It provides estimates of the number of people who are likely to experience the effects of climate change in coming decades, based on projections of population and demographic changes.
The report estimates that the exposure of people to extreme rainfall will more than quadruple and the exposure of people to drought will triple compared to the 1990s. In the same time span, the exposure of the older people to heat waves is expected to go up by a factor of 12, according to Peter Cox, one of the authors, who is a professor of climate-system dynamics at the University of Exeter in Britain.
Climate projections typically are expressed as averages over large areas, including vast expanses, like oceans, where people do not live. The report calculates the risk to people by overlaying areas of the highest risk for climate events with expected human population increases. It also takes into account aging populations — for example, heat waves pose a greater health risk to old people.
The report is part of a series of efforts to analyze how climate change might affect human health. Other major climate reports, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a global document, and the National Climate Assessment in the United States, have addressed the issue. But Professor Cox said the new report was the first large-scale effort to quantify the effects that different types of extreme weather would have on people.
“We are saying, let’s look at climate change from the perspective of what people are going to experience, rather than as averages across the globe,” he said. “We have to move away from thinking of this as a problem in atmospheric physics. It is a problem for people.”
The Lancet first convened scientists on the topic in 2009, and produced a report that declared climate change was “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” Monday’s report notes that global carbon emission rates have risen above the worst-case scenarios used in 2009, and that in the absence of any major international agreement on cutting those rates, projections of mortality and illness and other effects, like famine, have worsened.
“Everything that was predicted in 2009 is already happening,” said Nick Watts, a public health expert at the Institute for Global Health at University College London, who led the team of more than 40 scientists from Europe, Africa and China that produced the report. “Now we need to take a further step forward. The science has substantially moved on.”
For years, climate change was presented in terms of natural habitats and the environment, but more recently, experts have been looking at how it might change life on earth for people. Scientists and some governments are trying to frame the dangers of climate change in health terms in order to persuade people that the topic is urgent, not simply a distant matter for scientists. Governments around the world are preparing for a United Nations summit meeting on climate change in Paris in December to discuss new policies to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.
The report measures the increase over time in “exposure events,” which it defines as the number of times people experience any given extreme weather event.
By the end of the century, the report estimates, the exposure to heat waves each year for older people around the world is expected to be around 3 billion more cases than in 1990. The number of times people of all ages are exposed to drought would increase by more than a billion a year. The rise in exposures to extreme rain would be around 2 billion a year by the end of the century, in part because populations are growing.
Even without climate change, the health problems that come along with economic development are significant, the authors note. About 1.2 million people died from illnesses related to air pollution in China in 2010, the report said.
Most broad climate reports do not go further than explaining the science, but much of the Lancet report is dedicated to policy prescriptions to slow or stop climate change and mute its effects on health. It notes that using fewer fossil fuels “is no longer primarily a technical or economic question — it is now a political one,” and urges governments to enact changes that would accomplish that.