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Hot Air and Human Health

It seems that polar bears and penguins are not the only victims of global warming. As climate talks wrap up in Bali, we heard from the World Health Organization that rising temperatures are also making humans less healthy as malaria spreads northwards and heatwaves become more common. The WHO is using such claims to justify swingeing cuts in carbon emissions in order to stabilise global temperatures. But if the aim is actually to improve health--particularly in poor countries--they would be hard pushed to get it more wrong.



by Philip Stevens

It seems that polar bears and penguins are not the only victims of global warming. As climate talks wrap up in Bali, we heard from the World Health Organization that rising temperatures are also making humans less healthy as malaria spreads northwards and heatwaves become more common.

The WHO is using such claims to justify swingeing cuts in carbon emissions in order to stabilise global temperatures. But if the aim is actually to improve health--particularly in poor countries--they would be hard pushed to get it more wrong.

The relationship between climate and disease is less marked than is often claimed. Margaret Chan, the head of WHO, on Monday stated that rising temperatures could lead to the re-emergence of malaria in the USA. But this fails to take into account the vast range of human and ecological factors that determine the incidence of this disease.

According to Professor Paul Reiter, an expert on vector-borne diseases and former contributor to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ”there is no evidence that climate has played any role in the burgeoning tragedy of this disease.” Reiter points out that malaria was endemic throughout northern Europe until the second half of the 19th century, when changes in agricultural practices, improved drainage and better human dwellings led to a spontaneous decline of the disease as mosquitoes had fewer opportunities to bite people--even while records show temperatures rose in this period.

Effective control policies involving the use of pesticides like DDT saw the near eradication of malaria in tropical countries such as Sri Lanka but, as health authorities have taken their eye off the ball, it has re-emerged. Either way, it is unclear how cutting carbon emissions in the hope of stabilising temperatures would have any impact on the potential range of the disease.

Climate alarmists, including the WHO, have also claimed that global warming will lead to more deaths from heatwaves but perspective is also needed here. Professor Bill Keatinge, an expert on the effects of temperature on human physiology, has shown that deaths do increase in the first few days of a heatwave, but most of these are very sick people who were likely to die shortly anyway. Mortality actually decreases during the later stages of heatwave. Moreover, humans have developed a range of ways coping with high temperatures, from siestas to air conditioning.

In fact, cold weather is far more harmful to human health than hot weather, because of the increased risk of respiratory infections, heart attacks and strokes. A country like Britain has only 1,000 heat-related deaths every year, compared to 40,000 cold-related. So it may be that the benefits of rising global temperatures will far outweigh the costs.

Moreover, the cost of cutting greenhouse gas emissions would have drastic implications for human health. According to calculations by UK consultancy Lombard Street Research, a new treaty that would stabilise the climate at today’s temperatures would cost a total of $20 trillion--or 45% of the world’s current annual economic output. This is where possible policies to deal with a changing climate could have a very real--and nasty--effect on health, particularly in the poorest countries.

Such a treaty would be a massive drag on economic growth, which we know is an absolute pre-requisite for improved health. One study has shown that if economic growth in the developing world had been a mere 1.5% higher in the 1980s, at least 500,000 child deaths could have been prevented.

This is because much of the disease burden in developing countries is a direct result of poverty. Diarrhoea, chest infections caused by burning wood and dung indoors and malnutrition are the biggest killers of children.

European countries eliminated malaria as a by-product of prosperity. People could afford windows in houses, separate barns for cattle, and farmers adopted practices such as tillage and field drainage which deprived the mosquito of feeding opportunities. It is no coincidence that malaria is currently confined to the poorest parts of the world, because these areas are the least able to afford such improvements.

Mandatory caps on carbon emissions would be a betrayal of the sick in the world’s poorest regions, because they would undermine the one mechanism--economic growth--which allows people to move beyond the primitive living conditions that encourage the spread of such diseases.

Some NGOs claim this circle can be squared by increasing aid. But this is not a viable solution. The World Bank has calculated that the average child death could be averted for as little as $10 but bureaucracy and corruption inflate the average amount spent to achieve this in the health systems of developing countries to between $50,000 and $100,000.

If the WHO is serious about improving the health of the poor, it should stop trying to push emissions caps and focus on the real barriers to good health, such as taxes on medicines. For example, the Indonesian government increases the manufacturer’s price of one drug by a factor of ten. The WHO would be more sensible to protest against these taxes on the sick, instead of promoting global poverty via carbon caps.

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Philip Stevens is director of policy at International Policy Network, a development think tank based in London.

This article appeared in The Frontier Post on December 17, 2007.



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