An existential threat to life

THERE is definitely a continuing destabilization in the world’s climate system in the past several years as the world has witnessed extreme weather events that are unpredictable and have become more intense and frequent.

But it’s no longer just the weather anymore. Forest fires, drought, melting of the ice caps, changes in the behavior of animals and insects and a range of disastrous situations are becoming more and more frequent.

Dr. Carlos Gundran: “It’s probably best to prepare how the country will effectively and efficiently respond to these [extreme climate] events. I believe this is where we should put more focus on.”

Forty years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) published “Our Planet, Our Earth,” a report by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). The report called on nations to “address poverty, food and agriculture, water, energy, industry, human settlements, urbanization and basic services, transboundary and international issues—if the population of the world was to be healthier.”

Today, WHO describes climate change as “the single biggest health threat facing humanity—and health professionals worldwide are already responding to the health harms caused by this unfolding crisis.”

A brief look at climate change

THE United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change describes climate change as “a change of climate, which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.”

Dr. Carlos Gundran, who chairs both the Disaster Risk Management Subcommittee and the Department of Health Policy and Administration at UP Manila’s College of Public Health, said climate change happens when burning fuel increases the level of carbon dioxide (CO2). This, in turn, creates the “greenhouse effect,” where heat from the sunlight is trapped instead of it being reflected outside the planet. “The extra trapped heat disrupts many of the interconnected systems in our environment, and this is what we feel, as we know, as climate change,” Dr. Gundran said in his talk at the recent “Stop Covid Deaths” webinar “Climate Change and Health: Bakit Natin Kailangan Alamin,” organized by the University of the Philippines and UP Manila NIH National Telehealth Center in cooperation with UP Philippine General Hospital.

Effects of climate change

SOME of the known effects of climate change, according to Dr. Gundran, include extreme temperatures, where increased levels of temperature in the atmosphere and oceans related to climate change can cause changes in wind direction, moisture content in the air, and heat circulation patterns in the air, including underwater in the oceans.

“These changes cause shifts in extreme weather events, including extreme heat events such as droughts. There are also deep-freeze situations so it’s not just very hot but also very cold temperature,” he said.

There are also extreme events such as natural disasters that have an even bigger impact and damage caused on the environment, like more frequent and intense rains (remember Ondoy, which dumped an unusual amount of rain for a short period of time), more intense hurricane rainfall, plus rising of sea level where extreme weather events increase chances of storm surges.

“Extreme events also alter global rainfall patterns due to changes in wind directions. Example is the Mindanao area, which is also experiencing typhoons, unlike before,” Gundran pointed out.

Climate change also affects air quality, where air is becoming less healthy to breathe due to harmful emissions in the air, where higher temperatures lead to increase in pathogens and other harmful air pollutants. Also, the high- and low-temperature extremes and rain patterns can also affect the distribution, seasonality and prevalence of vector-borne diseases such as dengue, malaria, chikungunya, Japanese encephalitis, or leptospirosis and can affect disease outbreaks where pathogens can be carried to humans.

More water-borne diseases are also expected due to climate change that can affect marine and freshwater food sources and increase people’s exposure to water-borne contaminants. Climate change is also very likely to affect global, regional and local food security—temperatures and increased rains can increase pathogen load, rising CO2 can affect foods’ nutritional content, and warmer temperatures equate to more food spoilage, and can even disrupt distribution.

Finally, climate change can affect mental health, where extreme weather events, climate-induced illnesses, injury and deaths, damage to home and livelihood can cause mental stress. “Exposure to these can affect mental stability.”

Climate change’s effects on health

GUNDRAN cited a variety of effects, such as increased hospital and/or emergency room visits due to heat-related illnesses, especially among the elderly and the young, people working outdoors, and the economically disadvantaged during extreme temperatures.

Extreme natural disasters can cause death, injury or illness such as during earthquakes, worsen underlying medical conditions (when hospitals are inaccessible), affect mental health, and access to healthcare and emergency services is disrupted. “Most likely, even the responders like ambulances or emergency medical teams themselves were affected,” he said.

The effects of climate change on air quality can also be dangerous for those who suffer from respiratory disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), those with lung cancer or cardiovascular diseases, those with acute symptoms and high allergic sensitivity, even loss in school or work days. Climate change can increase water-borne diseases like increase in the level of toxins that create harmful algae, cholera, diarrhea and intestinal diseases, wound, eye and ear infections, etc.

“As regards mental health, climate change can cause serious mental health consequences such as anxiety, depression [from] the deaths that occur during disasters, chronic psychological dysfunction, while people with mental illness are at a higher risk for poor physical and mental health due to extreme heat,” Dr. Gundran pointed out.

So, what should the Philippines be preparing for? According to Gundran, since the country experiences severe typhoons and more intense rain levels and flooding, this is what the country should prepare for. “It’s probably best to prepare how the country will effectively and efficiently respond to these events. I believe this is where we should put more focus on.”

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