People stand in line in river after flooding in Thailand passing possessions from hand to hand

February 10, 2023, by Brigitte Nerlich

Climate change and health: Early and late warnings

Last week I saw various tweets from the Wellcome Trust announcing a new funding scheme that will support research on the impacts of #ClimateChange on human health, centring on communities most at risk (an announcement that by the way, was illustrated with a tryptic of photos of lone individuals dealing with a flood, a fire and a drought, not communities….).

Anne Coleman from Greener NHS tweeted in response “This is BIG! £2.5 million investment in communicating the health impacts of climate change up for grabs. The moment is NOW – let’s bring some creativity and ingenuity to the mix – looking forward to seeing what comes out of this. Thank you”. Yes, the moment is indeed now – but, as I’ll show it has been for a while.

I wondered how it all began and how far back calls for action regarding climate change and health may reach. To find out, I did my usual thing and dug around in databases, such as Scopus, Nexis, etc.

Early warnings

When you search Scopus, a database of academic papers, for “climate change” OR “global warming” AND “health”, you get 34,691 hits (on 4 February, 2023). The first article with this combination of terms appeared in 1974 and things trundled along undisturbed by any increase in output until around between 2002 and 2006, when publications started to shoot up.

However, one should note that the first ‘real’ dedicated article on climate change/global warming and health appeared in 1981, it seems, written by William W. Kellogg and Robert Schware entitled “Climate change and society: Consequences of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide”, published by the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, Boulder, Colorado, within the Division of Food, Climate and World’s Future.

The abstract states that: “impacts of climatic change in particular, a global warming accompanied by a shift in rainfall patterns, are considered for such vital areas as food and fiber production, water resources, natural ecological systems, fisheries, health and disease and energy demand. The political, economic, social, and ethical implications of global environmental change are discussed and national and international strategies for mitigating the impacts of climatic change or possibly averting that change altogether are evaluated.”

That was 1981! In the same year these two scientists also published a book about this issue which should be read by everybody. And ten years before that Kellogg “was a chief organizer of the international Study of Man’s Impact on Climate (SMIC) held in Sweden in 1971” (wikipedia) (this workshop is mentioned in Alice Bell’s history of the climate crisis, Our Biggest Experiment – and Alice is now Head of Policy, Climate and Health at the Wellcome Trust!).

On Nexis, a news data base, articles in ‘All English Language News’ (which I also searched with for “climate change” OR “global warming” AND “health”) were not far behind the academic ones, starting in 1976.

Echoing Scopus, the first article that delved really into the matter was from 1982 by Kellogg and Schware and entitled “Society, Science and Climate Change” published in Foreign Affairs. The article notes that Kellogg served in 1978-79 as “Advisor to the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, in which capacity he was one of the chief architects of the World Climate Programme”.

The article is one of the clearest statements one can find about the nature and impacts of climate change. At the end of the first part of the article, Kellogg and Schware write, and I can only applaud them: “the article suggests some of the possible elements of a ‘rational’ approach by our political, industrial, agricultural and scientific leaders. In the words of Immanuel Kant, ‘the whole interest of reason, speculative as well as practical, is centered in the three following questions: (1) What can I know? (2) What ought I to do? and (3) What may I hope?’”

I can’t summarise everything this long article says. It stresses that: “Carbon dioxide-induced climatic change will affect many aspects of society. Let us look at what seem likely to be three crucial effects — on food production, global and regional ecology, and human health, disease, and comfort, also referring briefly to the question of possible migrations of populations.”

I wish people had read and listened to Kellogg and Schware, but they didn’t. So much more ink was spilled after that, covering the same ground and falling on deaf ears, to use a really bad mixed metaphor.

Late warnings

Instead, more and more paper(s) were published, some trying to reframe climate change through the lens of public health issues, some surveying people’s perceptions and attitudes to the issues (or both), some totting up the, no longer future, health impacts already happening, some carrying out systematic reviews of these emerging mountains of literature and some even engaging in meta-meta reviews.

The IPCC, The Lancet (again and again), The CDC, The World Health Organisation and many more, such as the UN Environment Programme 2022, mentioned by the Wellcome Trust, have been warning of the health impacts of climate change.

It is actually very dispiriting to watch this accumulating avalanche of papers and reports and witness the unwillingness of politicians to react when faced with this massive amount of evidence – Kant would turn in his grave. One really doesn’t need much intelligence to join the dots. Even artificial intelligence can do it, as ChatGPG demonstrated to me:

“Climate change has been shown to have significant impacts on human health, both directly and indirectly. Direct impacts include heat stress, increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts), and increased spread of disease-carrying organisms (such as ticks and mosquitoes). Indirect impacts include changes to air quality, food and water security, and displacement of populations.

Studies have shown that climate change is associated with increases in respiratory and cardiovascular disease, malnutrition, infectious diseases, and mental health disorders. It also exacerbates existing health inequalities, with marginalized communities and low-income countries being disproportionately affected.

[…] It is important to note that the effects of climate change on health will continue to evolve and worsen unless significant actions are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address its impacts.”

You can’t get much clearer than that.

So, I hope that the Wellcome Trust funding will, as they say, “unlock climate action by making the direct and environmentally driven impacts of climate change on a wide range of physical and mental health outcomes visible – with a focus on the expressed needs of at-risk populations and communities most impacted by climate change”.


Image: Flooding in Thailand pxhere


Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics