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(File pix) Constant exposure to hot weather can have a serious effect on people’s health. Pix by NSTP/ Muhd Asyraf Sawal
(File pix) Constant exposure to hot weather can have a serious effect on people’s health. Pix by NSTP/ Muhd Asyraf Sawal

THE 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—the most important climate conference since the conclusion of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 — ended on Dec 15 with the adoption of the Katowice Rulebook.

Though it is one further step forward, action to confront global warming is still wanting. Most countries’ current climate targets will not be enough to limit global warming to significantly under 2°C and ideally to 1.5°C.

Without further efforts, the global temperature could increase by over 3°C by 2100. The foreseeable effects of climate change would pose too great a challenge for many countries.

Late last month, international researchers under the ambit of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change sent a chilling warning to the world: climate change is affecting our health. More people than ever are vulnerable to heat exposure globally, and numbers are rising.

The report analyses 41 indicators tracking the link between climate change and health. And while the authors noted “a lot of variability year on year”, the evident trend suggests we should expect heat wave events to spike higher.

We’re starting to feel this already. This summer marked a record in many parts of the world, with much higher temperatures than most populations are used to.

The latest report estimates that 42 per cent of over-65s in Europe and 43 per cent in the Eastern Mediterranean are already vulnerable to heat exposure; 38 per cent of this group are vulnerable in Africa and 34 per cent in Asia.

Dr Nick Watts, executive director of the Lancet project, highlighted a recent study suggesting that 2018 heat waves across Europe were made twice as likely as a result of climate change.

“Assigning attribution for every single event is difficult, but it’s clear that these sorts of events are examples of what is likely to come if we don’t rapidly respond to climate change,” he said.

Small changes in temperature and rainfall will not only lower productivity and crop yields, it will impact health by helping to spread infectious diseases. For example, the capacity of the dengue virus to spread has increased by 7.8 per cent since the 1950s, the report found.

The seasonal capacity for the Aedes mosquito — the primary species spreading Zika, dengue and chikungunya — and its ability to spread has lengthened and strengthened, the report says.

2016 set a new record for dengue transmission, and the spread is expected to rise in step with average global temperatures.

Levels of global cholera bacteria are also worrying. From the 1980s to the 2010s, the US witnessed a 27 per cent increase in coastline areas suitable for Vibrio infections.

The report shows half of 478 global cities surveyed stated that their public health structure will be seriously compromised by climate change. The health threats are expected to overwhelm services and extreme weather events pose a direct threat to health services.

Global spending on climate adaptation for health is at 4.8 per cent — too little, the researchers say, noting that Europe and Southeast Asia are the biggest spenders.

In a 2015 assessment by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UNFCCC, Malaysia was said to face numerous potential threats to health and development due to climate change. Among the futures foreseen by the assessment:

IF high emissions continue, mean annual temperature rises by about 4°C on average from 1990 to 2100. If emissions decrease rapidly, temperature rise is limited to about 1.1°C.

IF high emissions continue, and without large investments in adaptation, an annual average of 234,500 Malaysians are projected to be affected by flooding due to sea level rise between 2070 and 2100. If emissions decrease rapidly and there is a major scale up in protection (i.e. continued construction/raising of dikes) the annual affected population could be almost eliminated.

Adaptation alone will not offer sufficient protection, as sea level rise is a longterm process, with high emissions scenarios bringing increasing impacts well beyond the end of the century.

IF high emissions continue, heat-related deaths among the elderly (65+ years) are projected to increase to almost 45 deaths per 100,000 by 2080 compared to the estimated baseline of under one death per 100,000 annually between 1961 and 1990. A rapid reduction in emissions could limit heat-related deaths in the elderly to just over six deaths per 100,000 in 2080.

The WHO/UNFCCC assessment notes some opportunities for action. The country should continue refining its National Policy on Climate Change which incorporates health perspectives. Malaysia is implementing projects on health adaptation to climate change, building institutional and technical capacities to work on climate change and health, and has conducted a national assessment of climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptation for health.

It is very obvious that climate change is a multi-faceted issue which needs the attention of many sectors of government. The close collaboration between the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change and the Ministry of Health is imperative. Additionally, the inputs of climate scientists, health practitioners, the private sector and civil society could strengthen our national efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change on human health.

Zakri Abdul Hamid is former director of the United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Studies in Tokyo

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