Climate Change and Respiratory Health

Current Evidence and Knowledge Gaps

Tim K Takaro; Kim Knowlton; John R Balmes


Expert Rev Resp Med. 2013;7(4):349-361. 

In This Article

Greenhouse Gas Mitigation & Adaptation Co-benefits for Publichealth

To improve the likelihood of minimizing the adverse effects of climate change, we must reduce the anthropogenic causes, (i.e., GHG production, and at the same time prepare society to adapt to changes that cannot be stopped due to the momentum already in the climate system). Policy changes are beginning to impact GHG production in many parts of the world. Even the USA has seen recent reductions in fossil fuel use linked to improved fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles.[62] European nations have been significantly reducing GHG production over the past decade. These efforts are crucial for reducing future impacts, but because over-all global emissions continue to raise, adaptation to the impacts of future climate variability will also be required. Adaptation will take many forms. Those related to respiratory health are briefly reviewed below.

As noted in the above section on heat related illness, the magnitude of predicted temperature increase and effects stemming from this depends largely upon society's ability to reduce GHG emissions. Figure 1 shows the commonly modeled scenarios developed over the past 20years of research by the IPCC. Any reduction beyond the A2 scenario (close to our current trajectory) will require optimizing economic, technologic and population growth in a sustainable fashion, along with massive education and behavior change on an historic scale to reduce individual and collective emissions. If we are unable to achieve these goals then by mid-century, we will likely go beyond the 2oC increase in temperature as a target not to be exceeded, agreed upon in the UN's Copenhagen meeting in 2009.[63] This target temperature is rejected by many African and island states as unacceptably high; half of this increase is believed to represent the limits of many ecosystems.[64]

As exhibited by the error bars in Figure 1, there is significant uncertainty in the range of projected average surface temperatures for each scenario. This uncertainty increases with efforts to predict changes more locally and with other parameters of climate change such as precipitation. The personal and collective efforts required to reach meaningful GHG reduction targets are significant. However, the benefits to health are also significant via reduction in health-harming co-pollutants emitted along with GHGs and can be immediate and more tangible than the reduction in GHGs. The improvements in health are noted in sectors where emissions are being reduced in Europe to meet GHG reduction targets; household energy use, urban land transport, electricity generation and food production and agriculture.[65] Technologies that lead to reduced GHG production also have additional spin-off improvements in all of these sectors, such as reduced air pollution, increased physical activity, more efficient and available food production and improved over-all quality of urban living. Thus, as nicely outlined in a special issue of The Lancet, "The news is not all bad".[66]

"The threat of climate change has generated a global flood of policy documents, suggested technical fixes, and lifestyle recommendations. One widely held view is that their implementation would, almost without exception, prove socially uncomfortable and economically painful. But as a series of new studies shows, in one domain at least—public health—such a view is ill-founded. If properly chosen, action to combat climate change can, of itself, lead to improvements in health". [66]
Lancet Editorial Board 2010.