Professor Alistair Woodward, epidemiologist and biostatistician at the University of Auckland, who contributed to the latest report on climate change and health by Royal Society Te Apārangi, explains the main ways that climate change will disrupt our health.
The most obvious way that climate change affects health is through extreme events – heat waves, floods, storms – those kind of events which are unmistakeable and obviously linked very closely to human health. Hurricane Harvey, Irma, heatwaves in Australia and so on.
There are other ways in which climate change is important to health are a bit more subtle but perhaps more important in the long term.
It’s the effect of climate change on natural systems that have effects, for example, on food production, probably worldwide the effect of climate change on food production is going to be the most significant longer term.
If we think about what climate change means for New Zealand, we think that one of the changes that is going to be quite important is an increase in droughts. There’s going to be a reduction in rain, particularly on the eastern side of the country and more rain on the west, but the increase in drought frequency is going to put a lot of pressure on our rural economy here in New Zealand and we know that there is a relationship between the rural economy, the welfare of the people working in the rural economy, the frequency of mental health problems. All kinds of health issues are related to communities under stress and that’s something we’ve got to anticipate and prepare for.
Respiratory health is linked to weather and climate. We know that as a consequence of houses that are damp, and unfortunately we do have many houses in New Zealand that are not well equipped to deal with the weather. Where it’s wetter, houses are damper. Where houses are damper they’re more likely to get mould, mould is a potent cause of respiratory problems, particularly in children who are primed to get asthma.
We don’t think that climate change will effect everybody equally or evenly. You can think of it a bit as a threat multiplier. Climate change is going to make life harder for people who are already suffering a bit. So if you take the housing and respiratory illness story then climate change, moving to a damper, wetter environment, particularly in the western part of the country, is going to be more of a threat for people who are living in homes that are damp and leaky than it is for people who can afford to live in well-built, well-heated, well-ventilated homes.
How to respond? That’s the question. I think there are important opportunities that go with the challenges. Two examples: Our diets. If we could move our diet to eat less red meat that would be kind to the climate and it would be good to our health. Think about our transport system. If we could become less dependent on motor vehicles and make better use of walking and cycling, for example, then we know that would both reduce emissions and would be good for our health and good for our environment in other ways as well.
I am positive about the future. I can see that the challenge is a really big one but I can see that there are opportunities as well. I’m heartened by what we’ve been able to achieve in the past in terms of public health. I believe that we have the capacity to deal with this issue.