Consider that as the earth heats up, different parts of the world experienced as many as 398 outbreaks of different diseases over the last 10 years, and diseases typically confined to the tropics are on a consistent march to the more temperate lands, according to findings reported at the Global Health Conference held at the University of Washington this week.
This poses significant risks to people in the United States and their counterparts in other countries in the West.
Changes in climate are steadily gnawing into the earth’s ability to keep billions of people fed and their thirsts quenched, researchers reported. This is because rise in temperatures has led to a decline in the supply of billions of gallons of water needed to quench our thirst and keep crops watered. At the same time, the lowering in quality of air we breathe is adding its own load of serious ailments to an already disease-burdened world.
Making the chilling presentation were five experts drawn from diverse academic backgrounds and institutions. As Kristie Ebi of Carnegie Institution for Science gave an overview on climate change and health, she delivered data which pointed to the fact that rate of climate change is now faster than it ever was over the last 10,000 years. On average, global temperatures have risen by more than one degree Fahrenheit (0.7 degrees C) since 1880s and that if this trend was to hold by 2025, as many as 1.8 billion people will be living in places without enough water for their needs.
It appears that rising temperatures are encouraging the spread of such tropical diseases including malaria and dengue fever -a virus spread by mosquitoes. The World Health Organization estimates that each year as many as 150,000 deaths occur due to health complications created by global warming.
But the severity of the impacts depends on location. During the conference, experts projected that though the greatest health consequences are to be felt in the developing countries as attested by the big floods that took place in Mozambique in 2001, climate change appears to be eroding the ability of all parts of the world to produce adequate food.
“Climate and climate change have important effects on food and water supply,” said Thomas Hinckley of UW’s School of Forest Resources. To Hinckley, the world has been losing its glacial ‘bank account” of water supply at such an unprecedented rate. “Switzerland has lost 25 kilometers of ice over the last 11 years.”
It also appears that the ongoing warming is adding many more people in the world to the ranks of the already hungry. Hinckley observed that a stable climate is crucial to raising and maintaining the current level of food supply. Of course, there are those who would argue that to fight climate change-induced hunger, all that is needed is entrenching and replicating into Africa and other parts of the developing world, the kind of research and food-production technology that led to massive rise in industrial agriculture between 1940s and 1970s.
“But the green revolution was largely as a result of bringing massive amounts of land under irrigation as well as introduction of large amounts of nitrogen inputs and new seed varieties,” observed Hinckley. It is not clear whether this can be replicated if the world keeps losing its water supply systems. Hinckley says the disproportionate share of global population depends on three crops – wheat, maize and rice – whose peak production was achieved in 1975 and has been on a decline ever since.
And when it is considers that over 76 million people are added to the global population every year, one appreciates how tremendous a pressure is being exerted on global food-producing resources. The reality – voiced by Hinckley and others that a bigger percentage of people might soon be joining the 15 percent of global population of people who lack food security – appears to hit home.
Global warming is also fueling the march of insect populations, and might potentially create tremendous pressure on farming systems and loss in crop yields in more temperate lands.
Researchers at the conference are warning that it appears that the world might eventually have to brace for a difficult period as far as human health and nutrition intake are concerned.
To me, this rekindles a potentially frightening trend detailed by the United Nations Environmental Program several years ago. Unep’s report, GEO Year Book: An Overview of our Changing Environment 2004/5, had detailed how long years of unchecked destruction of life-support systems had resulted in ecosystems releasing the hold they had on the purveyors of human infirmity and death. The report presented graphic details on how those diseases the world had once caged were recurring on a frightening scale and frequency, while newer diseases were killing millions of people and reducing life expectancy in millions of others.
For instance, the report said that diseases that had earlier been controlled, such as tuberculosis, were “now rapidly increasing in incidence and geographic range.” And as if to confirm WHO’s recent data on the rapid rise in epidemics, UNEP had detailed how newer diseases were now breaking out frequently while pathogens that had once been controlled by ordinary medicines had evolved to create, for instance, drug-resistant strains of malaria and new strains of the influenza virus.
Unep’s report said that this was caused by degradation of the environment, widespread deforestation, biodiversity loss and rising consumption of unsafe water. However, the global environmental body was also candid enough that emission of greenhouse gases combined with the loss of balance between species that potentially cause infectious diseases and their predators, had played a key role.
Should we be gloomy and fatalistic?
But should the world be gloomy and fatalistic now that global warming and environmental destruction are threatening to deny it any prospect for attaining good health for the greatest majority?
It appears, from some experts, that there might be a window of opportunity for the world to change its carbon-emitting ‘ways.’ But whether this will happen is another story altogether. For me, there is no guarantee that – in a world where even the once strong economies are now struggling to remain afloat – there will be any significant shift in global green house emissions.
Again, there is no guarantee that the vast numbers of people are gifted with wide space-time perspectives and are wont to care much about what happens in an area wider than their neighborhoods or in time periods greater than foreseeable future. Further, there is no guarantee that even those given to such perspectives would find it in themselves to cut out current habits particularly if they draw considerable pleasure or different levels of satisfaction from them. And when one remembers that not all are agreed to the fact that climate change is something humanity should be pre-occupied with, probably all we can do is to sit tight and hope that we will be able to deal with the diseases and problems as they emerge.
However, all might not be lost. I believe the world can reverse the trend. For one, the United Nation’s report had predicted that the enactment and implementation of policies that focus on environmental factors could reduce the burden of these infectious diseases. At the same time, there is hope that the steady growth in the number of those who have devoted significant intellectual attention as well as resources to fight global warming will eventually sway the naysayers and particularly those occupying policy making positions.
But will this happen before we reach a point of no return?