Under the Weather

December 25, 2015 12:00 am | Updated March 24, 2016 11:54 am IST

Understanding the consequences to our health in a warming world

In this article we turn to an important reason to understand and act on our changing climate: Our Health.

Let us group the consequences to our health from climate change into three categories. First, there are the direct consequences of a warmer climate: heat-related problems or health problems stemming from exposure to extreme events like storms or flooding. Next, there are the indirect consequences to “natural” ecosystems: for instance, how will a warmer and possibly wetter climate affect mosquitoes, and in turn, affect dengue epidemics? Last are the indirect impacts through social systems. To understand these better, ask yourself: What if it were too hot to work in the fields, but, at the same time, working in the fields was the only job available to you? What if the yield from your fields was now too little to support your family, let alone to sell and fund your daughter’s education? What if you had to migrate to a cooler climate, but the cooler country was no longer accepting refugees? These are not theoretical questions in the future. They are questions people are facing now.

So, what are the direct consequences to our health from a warmer climate? Global warming. How do you feel when it is warmer than you would like it to be? A common answer would be “Irritable” or “Uncomfortable”. Scientifically, if our body temperatures rise above 38°C or 100.4°F, we begin to suffer from heat exhaustion, and our physical and mental functions begin to falter. At temperatures above 40.6°C, our organs begin to fail and the risk of death rises sharply. This perhaps explains the 2,500 deaths that occurred this year in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Orissa as the temperature rose to 45-plus. One of the more robust findings by scientists is that such heat waves are going to become more common. But will it affect us all equally? Apparently not. This is where the concept of “vulnerability” comes in.

India is unfortunately situated in the climate change fallout. We are hot already, and getting hotter doesn’t do us much good. Contrast this with Canada’s situation: while getting hotter would terminally inconvenience the polar bears, it is broadly positive for the human population. For the rich Indian, the added heat will increase the air conditioning bills and restrict outdoor walks. For a poor farmer working in the fields, the added heat could prove fatal. The 2003 heat wave in Europe primarily killed older people – another vulnerable section of the population. The last vulnerable group are children – whose smaller bodies and weaker immune systems leave them easy prey to infections.

We may conclude that the direct effects will fall hardest on our vulnerable: the poor, the women (we will see why in a later article), the old and the children.

The next direct health impact is the fallout from floods and storms. The recent Chennai floods provide a proximate example to understand what these might be. Over 400 people died from drowning and electrocution. As aspirations rise, more and more people will migrate into the cities, probably staying at the cheapest places. These are likely to be places that will be the first and worst affected during any flood. So a potent mix of increased populations at risk, an increased likelihood of natural disasters and a penchant to build over coping mechanisms like water bodies leaves us fully exposed to the disasters that befall us. Apart from the immediate deaths and injuries, diarrhoea and dengue soon follow. Countless buckets of bleach have been poured in Chennai to stem the infections, as overloaded hospitals and doctors deal with the influx.

Finally, there is the oft-ignored mental blow. When the excitement has faded, and the adrenalin rush from dealing with the existential crisis is gone, the reality that vacations and the “fun stuff” will have to be given up as appliances need to be replaced and homes rebuilt, will sink in. Possessions slowly paid for by a lifetime of work gone and replaced by a grey depression that comes with the understanding.

Our mental healthcare infrastructure is insufficient to cope with the coming mental health crisis. Tamil Nadu had 16,122 suicides in 2014 with only 300 psychiatrists to deal with the mental health of the state. We need an army of trained counsellors to cope with the problem.

This is a sombre picture, but will increasingly be a new reality. Forewarned is forearmed. Let us prepare ourselves.

(Climaction is a fortnightly column that is published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The views expressed in the articles are those of the author.)

The next article in this series will appear on January 8, 2016.

Feedback and questions may be e-mailed to climaction2015@gmail.com

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