The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published its latest report upon the impacts of global warming, highlighting the pernicious impact of climate change upon public health, well-being, and even the survival of the human race.
Three Australian contributors to the IPCC report chapter — Anthony McMichael, Colin Butler, and Helen Louise Berry — emphasised that the public debate needed to focus upon the relationship between public health, the environment, and climate change:
"Human-driven climate change poses a great threat, unprecedented in type and scale, to well-being, health and perhaps even to human survival."
The report also featured a number of basic pathways by which climate change affects health, and Australia features prominently as an example.
The direct impacts of climate change relate primarily to changes in the frequency of extreme weather including heat, drought, and heavy rain. The report uses Australia as a case study, showing the ratio of summer to winter deaths in Australia increasing in association with rising annual average temperatures. The association between hot days and increased mortality, predominantly as a result of heat stroke, is deemed to be “very robust”.
Direct impacts also include extreme weather events, with the IPCC report noting the deaths of 173 Victorians in the unprecedented 2009 bushfires, caused by record high temperatures and long-term drought.
Extreme weather will also account for increasing flood events and storms, risking health through drowning, injuries, hypothermia, infectious diseases, and mental health risks such as psychological stress, anxiety, and depression.
The second pathway by which climate change impacts health is through effects on natural systems, for example, disease vectors (such as mosquitoes carrying malaria or dengue fever), water-borne diseases (like cholera), and air pollution, estimated by the WHO to have killed around 7 million people in 2012.
Third, the report identifies effects heavily mediated by human systems: occupational impacts, such as heat stroke and strain experienced by those working outdoors or greater exposure to disease carrying vectors; under-nutrition through quantity and quality of food harvested; and mental stress, arising out of extreme weather events and disasters or violence and conflict triggered by resource pressures caused by climate change.
In his book, Overheated: The Human Costs of Climate Change, Law Professor Andrew Guzman at the University of California, Berkeley wrote that "Climate change poses a unique and unprecedented threat to health and health systems around the world."
He emphasised that "climate change threatens the systems we have built and that have extended and improved our lives […] Food and water will be less available and more dangerous, disease will be less well contained and more common, and illnesses will be less well treated and more prevalent."
Guzman wrote that extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, "will affect rich and poor countries alike, nickel-and-diming victims into the grave." Legal, political, and economic responses to the human impacts of climate change will be needed.
At the press conference releasing the impact report, IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri highlighted that the impact of climate change will be a severe challenge for the world’s poorest, with food security and extreme events, such as natural disasters or human conflicts, disproportionately affecting those most at risk.
The IPCC report highlighted larger questions of equity, justice, and human rights in respect of public health and climate change:
"Populations that do not have access to good quality health care and essential public health services are more likely to be adversely affected by climate variability and climate change."
In particular, the report was the first comprehensive review of the evidence for the effect climate change will have on poverty. With very high confidence, the IPCC report concluded that climate change will worsen existing poverty and exacerbate inequalities, such as existing gender inequalities, as well as various dimensions of discrimination based on race, class, age, indigeneity and (dis)ability. The IPCC report also concluded, with medium confidence, that climate change will create a new poor between now and 2100, including in high income countries like Australia.
The clarity in which this IPCC report sets out the equity, justice, and human rights dimensions of climate change mean that such factors must now form an express part of international climate negotiations. Until now, such negotiations have failed to adequately view climate change through the prism of human rights.
Mary Robinson, the former President of the Republic of Ireland and past UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has championed the importance of doing so, saying that, "Because climate change presents a new and unprecedented threat to the human rights of millions, international human rights law and institutions must evolve to protect the rights of these peoples."
A number of public policy responses to the issues raised in respect of climate change and global health were raised in the report.
The Australian co-authors of the IPCC chapter on public health and climate change highlighted a number of public health responses. The writers stressed that "the most immediate effective way to manage health risks is through programs that introduce or improve basic public health measures."
The co-authors also observed that:
"The chapter offers some cheer in stressing that the near-term and relatively localised health 'co-benefits' from reducing greenhouse emissions (mitigation) could be very large."
The report also supports climate mitigation actions designed to improve physical health, social connectedness, and mental health. The IPCC co-authors encourage early action in respect of public health. "Overall, the up-front costs of reducing emissions could be substantially offset by early and extremely large health (and other) benefits," the report says.
Strong inter-linkages between intellectual property, public health, and climate change have contributed to long-standing debates over patent law and access to essential medicines – particularly in respect of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, and non-communicable diseases like cancer.
Significant legal battles over the ownership and cost of patented inventions, and the use of flexibilties – such as compulsory licensing, state use, patent pools, and parallel importation – are also contentious.
There has been significant debate over "Patents for Humanity" — and the circumstances in which patent owners should engage in humanitarian licensing. Intellectual property law will need to be reformed to tackle interconnected global issues such as public health and climate change.
Professor Ben Caldecott — the leader of the Stranded Assets programme at the University of Oxford – has contended that public health concerns will be an important driver of public policy developments in respect of climate action. In his Stranded Down Under tour, he noted the concern in China over environmental health in light of the smog-apocalypse.
Caldecott maintains that there will be a greater push by China to invest in clean technologies to tackle public health concerns about environmental pollution. Fossil fuel divestment has become a mainstream policy option in the West too. In The British Medical Journal, David McCoy called upon hospitals, universities, medical societies, and pharmaceutical and medical companies to engage in divestment from fossil fuel companies.
The British Medical Journal editorial concluded:
"If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change and bequeath a sustainable planet worth living on, we must push, as individuals and as a profession, for a transformed, sustainable, and fair world."
There is a need for significant law reform in order to protect public health and climate justice in an age of global warming.