Dec 15, 2011
Health-relevant adaptation to climate change "still in its infancy"
Climate change is likely to affect human health through its effects on extreme temperatures, air quality, infectious disease, extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, storms and land shifts, and food and water safety and security. But it's not clear how many adaptation measures have been taken around the world to help countries protect their populations.
In the first study of its kind, researchers from McGill University, Canada, examined the Fifth National Communication (NC) reports sent to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by Annex I parties (mainly developed countries) in 2009 and 2010. This provided information on health adaptation measures taken by 38 of the 41 countries; Malta, Monaco and Turkey did not submit their data in time for the study.
"We wanted to know what level of adaptation countries were reaching, and what kinds of health vulnerabilities were drawing adaptation responses," Alexandra Lesnikowski told environmentalresearchweb. "This is not the first time that a systematic assessment of adaptation has been conducted, but it is the first time we are aware of that this approach has been applied specifically to health adaptation."
The scientists found that health adaptation is still a developing area. Only 15% of the 1,912 actions were being taken specifically with human health in mind; the others were part of adaptation for sectors such as agriculture, water and spatial planning, which can all affect health, but the actions were "being carried out without the inclusion of the public-health sector or a recognition of linkages with public health". There was only a vague link between adaptation research and actions.
What's more, around 80% of the actions were "groundwork", i.e. preparations such as impact assessments, adaptation research or strategic planning. "Only a fraction of the actions described in these reports were actually having a tangible affect on how government programmes are designed or implemented," said Lesnikowski.
"Given that we are already beginning to experience health impacts of climate change – take, for example, the 2003 European heatwave, in which more than 70,000 excess deaths were recorded – these results indicate that health policy-makers need to be more engaged in doing adaptation," said Lesnikowski. "Responses described in the NC5 tend to be led by non-health sectors – environment, water, agriculture – even where they affect community health, but only by including the health sector in adaptation planning will we get comprehensive adaptation approaches that address the full range of implications that climate change has for our communities."
The UK, Australia, Finland and Canada each reported more than 100 actions. At the other end of the scale, Croatia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Slovenia each had fewer than 25 initiatives. Flooding was the most widely recognised issue, discussed by 34 countries, followed by food safety and security, general extreme weather events, and extreme heat. Extreme cold was the least popular issue, addressed only by Greece, Canada and Lithuania. These trends were reflected in adaptation actions: 17 countries have pursued adaptation on flooding and water safety and security; 14 have addressed food safety and security; and 13 reported adaptations concerning extreme heat.
Eleven countries described public awareness and outreach programmes addressing the risks of extreme heat, for example France's Plan Canicule and the Italian Heat Health Watch Warning System. Eleven countries were discussing climate-change-related alterations to regulations on water safety and security. Potential developments in infrastructure and technology included expanding city sewage systems in Estonian capital Tallinn to cope with higher volumes of water; Belgium's Integrated Coastal Safety Plan to build protective barriers along waterfronts to reducing flooding from storm surge and sea-level rise, Japan's development of alternative seed varieties, and Czech plans to improve drainage and irrigation systems. Only Lithuania revealed plans to improve medical preparedness to address climate-change risks.
It's likely that groups such as the elderly, women, indigenous peoples, people with pre-existing or chronic conditions, and individuals living in poverty will be more vulnerable to the health effects of climate change. The NC5 reports focused most frequently on the elderly, people with pre-existing or chronic medical conditions and children, with extreme heat and air quality the issues raising the most concern. Canada, New Zealand, the US and Australia discussed indigenous groups but other vulnerable groups such as women, disabled individuals or those living in poverty was minimal. "Integration of vulnerable groups into adaptation initiatives remains underdeveloped and uneven across Annex I parties," write the researchers in ERL.
Now the researchers would like to expand their systematic approach to analysing health-adaptation plans to middle and low-income countries, as well as to adaptation in other sectors. They plan to use data sources such as National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) submitted to the UN.
About the author
Liz Kalaugher is editor of environmentalresearchweb.