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The Effects of Climate Change on Human Health

Dax Tate, Jefferson Van Wagenen

Honors 221D: Climatic Extremes

Winter 2017


Studying the impacts of climate change on human health is a new field of climate science.
Without significant backlogs of data, modern studies involve the analysis of correlations between
temperature and different effects of the climate system. These correlations show that temperature causes a
positive growth in the range, strength, and transmission rates of most pathogens. Correlations also
indicate a variable growth in the frequency, duration, and amplitude of weather events like heat waves,
droughts, and flooding. Pathogenic and weather effects can be harmful to human health both directly and
indirectly. Direct effects include illness and the destruction of communities. Indirect effects focus
primarily on the disruption of local food supplies. Although these impacts will be felt globally,
underdeveloped regions with the least ability to respond face the greatest threat. Climate-driven political
and social disorder in these regions can lead to migration crises on a global scale.
Humanity is currently undergoing an enormous climate experiment. Our actions are pumping
greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere faster than ever before, and the
earth is responding in a like manner. The fact that temperatures are increasing rapidly are near-common
knowledge, and the plight of the polar bear in a melting arctic world is a well-known problem. But less
commonly known is that human beings face a plight of their own. We are just beginning to see, both in
studies and around the globe, the ways in which human health is impacted by the rapidly changing
climate. Pathogens are beginning to stray into new (and vulnerable) regions, like Malaria in the East
African Highlands.1 Extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and heat waves are becoming more
common, and more powerful.2 The damages caused by these factors has thus far been relatively subdued.
But, as they become more powerful, and their impact on humans more drastic, we will likely witness the
partial breakdown of social and political order in many developing nations of the world. These changes
affect us all, and as such it is vital that we understand how global warming plays a role in our health.
The Difficulties of Studying Climate and Human Health
In our context, we consider human health to be affected directly through the incidence of heat
events and other extreme weather phenomena, and indirectly by the spreading of pathogens and the
effects of climate change on food supply. Studying how climate change affects each of these situations is
difficult because those effects are complex and multifaceted. With respect to weather, approaches include
studying past and present trends and projecting those trends into the future. Pathogenic effects are
particularly difficult to verify, due to a small backlog of data and the strong interconnection of factors that
play a role in pathogen spreading, so most research in this area has been conducted by analyzing
correlations between temperature and pathogen trends.
Studying Correlations
We are broadly aware that climate change impacts the above issues in many ways. Temperatures
are rising rapidly relative to just a few hundred years ago--almost every consecutive year is being hailed
as the new “hottest year on record” by climate scientists. This trend in temperature has been matched with
trends of similar natures in weather patterns and pathogens. Researchers such as Drew Harvell, Jonathan
Patz, and others, by studying these correlations between temperature and weather, and temperature and
pathogens, have begun providing other climate scientists with the backlogs of data necessary to draw any
conclusions about their future impact. These studies will be analyzed here.
Key Questions Regarding Climate Change and Human Health
Our goal, therefore, is to examine the potential impacts of climate on the future of human health.
To do so, we will analyze and attempt to answer questions in three major areas: First we focus on
pathogens, which cause direct human health crises through disease, as well as indirect ones via food
supplies. We are aware of a few specific pathogens that are positively affected by global warming, but we
wish to know how pathogens in general will be affected by climate change. Will all pathogens be affected
the same way? And how can experiments conducted on global warming and pathogens accurately identify
temperature effects, when so many other factors are also present?
Our second set of questions relate to weather. How does weather play direct and indirect roles in
human health? We mentioned an increased incidence of heat waves, but can we predict phenomena like
this in an effective manner to help populations stay safe? And how much can we understand about how
weather patterns will change in general?
Finally, we concern ourselves with humans themselves. How will we adapt to these risks that
come before us? Will different regions of the globe be affected in the same way? How will
underdeveloped countries be affected by human health crises caused by climate change versus more
developed nations?
Predicted Effects on Human Health
We hypothesize that warming will have a generally positive effect toward pathogens globally.
Temperature dependent pathogens will be able to spread to higher latitudes and altitudes, and pathogens
in general will have a higher incidence of survival due to more mild winters and lower host resistances.
This effect will lead to more humans being hit by pathogenic diseases, as well as a greater incidence of
crop failures and infestations.
Studies indicate that increasing temperatures will lead to more intense weather events. These
events will have a role to play in terms of crop failure as well, as the increase in heat events will
negatively affect crops being cultivated in warm climes. Instances of drought, flooding, and heat waves
will also bear harmful effects on human health.
We believe that residents of underdeveloped nations will be disproportionately affected by these
changes, in part because of their proximity to equatorial regions but also, and primarily, due to their
relative lack of resources needed to defend against and recover from pathogens and extreme weather
conditions. This lack of ability to respond will lead to mass migrations, creating global social and political
Indications of Climate-Related Health Risks
The hypotheses of a causal link between increased global temperatures and increased pathogen
range, development, and infection rates (in the form of lower host resistance) have been examined in a
growing number of studies in recent decades. One such test reported burdens present in studying such
hypotheses due to the sparsity of available pathogen
data over time, the relatively low quantity of
experiments conducted focusing on pathogens with
respect to climate, and the difficulty isolating climate
change’s impact on pathogens from a multitude of
other factors.1 It did, however, bring to light some past
studies which demonstrated a number of significant
results of temperature rise on pathogens. One study in
England demonstrated that higher temperatures and
more mild winters caused the Dutch elm disease
fungus to have a more severe impact.3, 6 Harvell also
references a number of instances of diseases being
introduced into new areas, causing severe damage to
resources due to a lack of immunity. Harvell includes
many examples like these to justify his warning that
spreading pathogen range can severely impact
environments into which they are introduced.3
Another attempt to test those hypotheses not
only drew on past studies but also presented an
example in which a computer-driven climate model
was developed to explore the response of Dengue
Fever spreading rate to temperature changes, via
increased mosquito populations, in countries whose
size and temperature invariability make it relatively
easy to isolate climatic effects (Figure 1).4 The article
does present a counter-result, however, noting a
DHF cases.
density and
observed conflicting case in which increase in Malaria
Fig. 1: Correlation between simulated, climate-
incidence in a region in Africa has no observable
driven variations in mosquito density and
relation to temperature change, demonstrating an
observed variations in dengue and DHF cases.
argument that causation is not so clear-cut.3
Finally, an article arguing for
decreased host resistance to pathogens due
to temperature change examined a case-

Days After Planting

study of potato late-blight in Finland. It
found that as temperature increased, the
first incidence of late-blight in the year
came sooner after planting, dropping over
20 days on average in ten years (Figure
2).5 The magnitude of this change, along
with other case studies analyzed in the
article, is used to suggest that climate Year
warming may induce a drastic weakening
Fig. 2: Changes between 1992 and 2002 in the
of vulnerable species to pathogens.5
earliest observations of potato late-blight.
Beyond analyzing and interpreting
previous studies and experiments, some articles have included experiments of their own. One such
experiment attempted to investigate the response of multiple fungal pathogens to warmer, wetter climates
in the United Kingdom by exposing multiple types of seeds, each vulnerable to certain fungal pathogens
present in the area, to a climate that got successively warmer and wetter in simulation of climate change
and comparing how a subset of those seeds treated with fungicides compared in terms of lifespan with a
subset not treated. They found the subsets not treated (and thus more susceptible to their respective fungal
pathogen) to only be increasingly detrimentally affected in two of four cases versus their treated
counterparts, suggesting, the article reported, that climate change’s effects on fungal pathogens are not
uniform.6 However, the article discussed potential issues with the conduct of the experiment, from
difficulty simulating heating through the soil to trouble collecting the information they needed to make
their analyses.6
Likewise, although weather patterns are shifting in complex ways, we do observe that heat waves
in equatorial regions are becoming more common and more powerful.4 The European Heat Wave of 2003
killed between 22,000 and 45,000 people, and its divergence from expected climate variability is cited as
an example of how anthropogenic climate change has affected heat waves.4 Global models suggest heat
events to increase in severity, duration, and frequency due to climate change; furthermore, increased
mortality is stimulated by heat waves pushing temperatures above a “comfortable range”, which varies by
region.4 For example, models demonstrate that anywhere between 30% and 60% of Sub-Saharan Africa is
projected to experience much more severe summers and heat events by the end of the century. 1 Heat
events, along with droughts (another causally-linked effect of climate-change), have a direct impact not
only on human health, but also on food supply, which influences malnutrition where it is incident; that
being said, estimates suggest global loss of crops to heat events will be countered by weather shifts
making other regions more fertile, suggesting that crop yields are a localized influence of climate change,
rather than a global influence.4, 2 Model studies have provided unclear and inconsistent results with
respect to how climate will affect frequency and duration of such complex systems as El Niño-Southern
Oscillation (ENSO), however, they did demonstrate with significant confidence that we should expect an
increase in amplitude from changes in climate.7 Studies have found a “well-established” influence by
ENSO on the incidence of Malaria and other water-borne diseases in Southern Asia and Africa.4, 2 Finally,
an increase in the severity and frequency of droughts on coastal and river-delta populations is predicted as
a result of climate-induced sea level rise.2
Impact on Humanity
Our findings in this study indicate many potential health dangers for human populations.
Regarding pathogens, the studies by Harvell and Gregory especially show the dangers presented by
pathogens as the earth continues to warm.3, 5 However, and perhaps more importantly, Leishman’s and
Patz’s studies both demonstrate our imperfect understanding of these effects.4, 6 While this could be
interpreted to mean
that predictions of
stronger pathogens in
warmer climates is
exaggerated, the
number of studies
that show positive
correlations seems to
claim the opposite:
that our limited
resources on
pathogens in warmer
WHO estimated
climate change by
the year(per
million people) attributable to climates could be
Fig. 3: WHO estimated mortality attributable to climate change by the year 2000. causing us to
underestimate, rather
than overestimate, the potential impacts of global warming on human health via pathogenic strengthening
and expansion. All pathogens will not be affected in the same ways, or even in the same direction, but the
overall trend shows an increase in pathogen transmission, survivability, and range of infectivity, and a
decrease in host resistance.
As the weather in many regions become more unpredictable and varied, it will make many
regions less habitable. Heat waves will push temperatures in sub-Saharan Africa to near-fatal extremes,
droughts will dry out regions of the world that are already extremely arid, with devastating effects for
humans, animals, and vegetation alike. Flooding along coastal lowlands, including major population
centers such as New York and Bangladesh, will destroy lives and homes on unprecedented scales. Today
we know generally that the magnitude of some events will increase, the frequency of others, and the
duration of yet other weather patterns. As we have learned more about these possible effects of climate on
weather, we have realized the potentially devastating consequences they can and will have on human
The impact of these conclusions will have far-reaching effects on humanity. Increased disease
durability will affect all regions of the globe, but the effects on both humans and food supply will be felt
most intensely in tropical and subtropical regions. Weather phenomena such as floods, droughts, and
extreme heat events will also be most frequent and prominent in these regions, directly contributing to
human mortality rates by destroying homes and communities, as well as indirectly by flooding or
dehydrating crops and disrupting local food chains. Both of these indirect effects will lead to widespread
famine in regions already wracked by high rates of poverty and unequal distribution of food. While
developed countries have the socioeconomic capacity to absorb many of these impacts through the
development of vaccines and the effective transfer of resources to affected regions, many poorer nations
in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia lack the economic capabilities and the social and
governmental organization to do so. The World Health Organization estimates that these nations face the
highest climate-related mortality rates by far, as a result of extreme food shortages, near-uninhabitable
peak temperatures, and disease, which will all contribute to future scenes of political unrest in these
regions (Figure 3).4 Further, the IPCC explicitly states that “the impacts of climate change may cause
social disruption, economic decline, and displacement of populations,” the associated health impacts of
which are “substantial.” (Figure 4).2 For the people living in these regions without the means to relocate,
these events will mean prolonged and widespread human health crises. Those that do have the financial
and social means to escape will seek asylum in more developed countries, creating a global refugee crisis
with the many health issues that it entails These issues can include ethnic tensions, overcrowding, and
extreme poverty, all of which can have severe consequences for human health.1 These effects especially
are far from localized to any particular region. The burden of these health crises rest on all humans
because, as shown, while the subtropical and tropical regions will feel the impact of disease, extreme
weather events, and food shortage most
prominently, the unrest caused by these
factors will be felt across all regions.
Where to Go from Here
As shown by the results of many
studies today, such as Leishman’s above,
more work is necessary to understand the
complex correlations of climate and
pathogens.6 Much work has been done in
recent years, but Harvell points out that
“baseline disease data … are rarely
collected for nonhuman, nonagricultural,
or noncommercial systems.” 3 While past
studies can be useful, in future studies we
need to increase our collection of this
baseline data, our understanding of
pathogens in general, and our Fig. 4: Schematic diagram of pathways by which climate
understanding of climate as an isolated change affects health, and concurrent direct-acting and
effect on pathogens. The studies in modifying (conditioning) influences of environmental,
Honduras, Nicaragua, and Thailand social and health-system factors.
examined above are excellent examples of
using specific regions with unique, climate-isolating features to enhance our understanding.4
In order to sufficiently predict the potential threats to human health from climate change, it is
vital that we gain more understanding of the ways that different weather events respond to climate
triggers. Correlations are effective, but only to an extent. The model results showcased by Lenton are an
excellent way to turn what we already know into predictions for the future, but the drawbacks are
obvious.7 By devoting more resources to the development of complex and multifaceted models, we can
hope to erase the inconsistent and sometimes contradictory results that set back our understandings today.
By continuing and enhancing these pathogenic and weather-related studies, we can work to predict human
health dangers in time to minimize their impacts in the high-risk tropical and subtropical regions, and
hope to alleviate some of the most dramatic effects of climate change on human health.
Works Cited

1. Serdeczny O., Adams S., Baarsch F., et al., (2016). Climate Change Impacts In Sub-Saharan
Africa: From Physical Changes to Their Social Repercussions. Regional Environmental Change
15 (8): 1-16.
2. Confalonieri U., Menne B., Akhtar R., Ebi K.L., Hauengue M., Kovats R.S., Revich B.,
Woodward A., 2007. Human Health. Climate Change (2007). Impacts, Adaptation and
Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: 391-431.
3. Harvell C., Mitchell C., Ward J., Altizer S., Dobson A., et al., (2002). Climate Warming and
Disease Risks for Terrestrial and Marine Biota. Science 296 (5576): 2158–2162.
4. Patz J.A., Campbell-Lendrum D., Holloway T., Foley J.A, (2005). Impact of Regional Climate
Change on Human Health. Nature 438 (7066): 310-317.
5. Gregory P., Johnson S., Newton A., Ingram J., (2009). Integrating Pests and Pathogens into the
Climate Change/Food Security Debate. Journal of Experimental Botany 60 (10): 2827-2838.
6. Leishman M. R., Masters G. J., Clarke I. P., Brown V. K., (2000). Seed Bank Dynamics: the Role
of Fungal Pathogens and Climate Change. Functional Ecology 14 (3): 293–299.
7. Lenton T., Held H., Kriegler E., Hall J., Lucht W., Rahmstorf S., Schellnhuber H.J., (2007).
Tipping Elements in the Earth's Climate System. Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences 105 (6): 1786-1793.