A Human Health Perspect ive on climate change

Sumario del texto publicado por Environmental Health Perspectives y el National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences:

Climate change endangers human health, affecting all sectors of society, both domestically and globally. The environmental consequences of climate change, both those already observed and those that are anticipated, such as sea-level rise, changes in precipitation resulting in flooding and drought, heat waves, more intense hurricanes and storms, and degraded air quality, will affect human health both directly and indirectly. Addressing the effects of climate change on human health is especially challenging because both the surrounding environment and the decisions that people make influence health. For example, increases in the frequency and severity of regional heat waves—likely outcomes of climate change—have the potential to harm a lot of people. Certain adverse health effects can probably be avoided if decisions made prior to the heat waves result in such things as identification of vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly and ensured access to preventive measures such as air conditioning. This is a simplified illustration; in real-life situations a host of other factors also come into play in determining vulnerability including biological susceptibility, socioeconomic status, cultural competence, and the built environment. In a world of myriad “what if” scenarios surrounding climate change, it becomes very complicated to create wise health policies for the future because of the uncertainty of predicting environmental change and human decisions. The need for sound science on which to base such policies becomes more critical than ever.

Recognizing the complexity of this issue, an ad hoc Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health (IWGCCH)2 assembled to develop a white paper on relevant federal research and science needs, including research on mitigation and adaptation strategies. Examples of mitigation and adaptation research needs are identified, but a comprehensive discussion of these issues is not included. These research and science needs broadly include basic and applied science, technological innovations and capacities, public health infrastructure, and communication and education. Consideration is also given to the potential structure of a federal climate change and health research agenda and the use of scientific research results for applications and decision making. The purpose of this paper is to identify research critical for understanding the impact of climate change on human health so that we can both mitigate and adapt to the environmental effects of climate change in the healthiest and most efficient ways. Although the group recognizes the global nature of climate change’s impacts on human health, the primary focus of this paper is on the situation in the United States.

This report is organized around 11 broad human health categories likely to be affected by climate change.3 Categories are arranged in alphabetical order, and no prioritization—for instance as to likelihood of occurrence, severity of effects, or depth of current knowledge—is implied. Each category is broken into sections that introduce the topic, explain its relationship to climate change, and identify the basic and applied research needs of that category, as well as crosscutting issues where relevant. Most investigations of climate change and health have relied on environmental and ecological effects to extrapolate potential human health impacts; the IWGCCH deliberately chose to emphasize the need for research on human health outcomes over environmental impacts for this reason: this approach highlights direct links between climate change and federal research priorities that are often disease- or outcome-specific, and a focus on human health outcomes enables a holistic approach to exploring climate change-related health impacts. We recognize that the health consequences identified in this document are not exhaustive, and that because so many climate change effects are prospective, some of the research needs enumerated may be speculative. As more information becomes available, new research needs may be identified and others rejected, but it is our intent that this report may serve as a baseline discussion from which agencies can proceed.

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