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

Impacts on Low Resource Countries

Climate change represents the greatest environmental justice challenge of our times. Disproportionate consumption of fossil fuels by rich nations is largely responsible for our current levels of GHGs, with the poorest 15% of the world's people responsible for only 3% of the global carbon footprint in 2000.[85] Unfortunately, as North America and Europe reduce their emissions China, India and other rapidly developing nations have significantly increased their production continuing the global increase in emissions. Low-resource countries continue to suffer the greatest impacts because of their increased exposure to the effects of warming and their reduced ability to adapt to the changes. Indeed, the vast majority of the WHO's conservative estimate of 150,000 deaths per year are among those one billion poorest individuals.[74] In defining its research priorities,[5] the WHOhas been challenged to recognize this context and to clearly place their agenda in the "overall context of improving global health and health equity".[86] This focus is appropriate.

To buttress against the negative health impacts of climate change, societies must develop adaptive capacity. A key determinant of adaptive capacity is household social and economic capital.[87] The impacts of climate change will be felt more acutely by those whose choices are constrained by social and financial capital, even though their contribution to the problem of GHG production is miniscule. Building adaptive capacity for the populations of low-resource nations is recognized as a moral and ethical imperative by the participants in the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). To this end they have established the Green Climate Fund (GCF) with pledges of up to $100 Billion (USD) annually by 2020 for adaptation and mitigation that moves countries to a more sustainable development path.[63] Managing the fund will be a significant challenge in itself.[88]

Effectively improving adaptive capacity in low-resource countries is not just altruistic. The UN Environment Program has carefully assessed the environmental capital available in the earth's ecological systems[89] and concluded that concluded that social stability in addition to human wellbeing, health and survival are now at destabilizing levels. Crucial resources including food[90–92] and water[93,94] are frequently in limited supply during stressful climate driven conditions. Though uncertain the threat of armed conflict remains a distinct possibility and further threat to health.[9]

An example of what progress can be made to combat the challenge of food and water insecurity in a low resource setting is demonstrated by Jennifer Burney and others at Stanford's Center on Food Security and Environment in their efforts to map aquifers in Africa's dry regions and develop cheap, efficient drip irrigation systems to improve crop yields and reduce GHG emissions from agriculture.[95]