Conference on Human Health and Global Climate Change: Summary of the Proceedings

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Observed changes in the Earth's climate over the past 100 years appear to be consistent with theoretical models of greenhouse warming, according to the participants in a recent scientific conference on Human Health and Global Climate Change, cosponsored by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM)1. These models suggest that, without major changes in environmental policy, we could expect to see even greater changes in global climate over the next 100 years. These changes could produce alterations both in physical systems (e.g., higher temperatures, heavier rainfall, and rising sea level) and in ecosystems (e.g., forests, agriculture, marine ecologies, and the habitats of various insects and animals). In addition to the global changes associated with greenhouse warming, a continuing depletion of stratospheric ozone would increase the mount of ultraviolet radiation that reaches the Earth's surface, causing increased rates of skin cancer, cataracts, and immune suppression.

The focus of concern to the conference participants was the substantial risks to human health, including both direct risks (e.g., death in heat waves or floods, skin cancer) and indirect risks (e.g., changes in food production or the distribution and incidence of vector-borne diseases) that are believed to be associated with changes in global climate. The indirect risks appear to be the most difficult to cope with, particularly those posed by emerging and reemerging infectious diseases such as cholera, malaria, dengue fever, and Hantavirus. These risks are of particular concern in regions and populations that are already vulnerable due to crowding, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and political or economic instability.

The general agreement that emerged during the conference was that changes in the global climate could pose significant risks to human health. Much remains to be done to clarify the exact linkages between human activities, global climate change, and human health, but the lack of complete data should not be used as an excuse for inaction. Instead, the precautionary principle should apply: If the risk to public health is great, even if there is uncertainty, both policy and action should be biased in favor of precaution.

In discussing the policy implications of global climate change for human health in the United States and the international community, participants identified a number of actions that should be taken, including (a) the creation of a global surveillance and response network; (b) increased

1  

The conference was held at the National Academy of Sciences on September 11–12, 1995, and was attended by more than 300 people (see Appendix C).



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Conference on Human Health and Global Climate Change: Summary of the Proceedings Conference on Human Health and Global Climate Change: Summary of the Proceedings EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Observed changes in the Earth's climate over the past 100 years appear to be consistent with theoretical models of greenhouse warming, according to the participants in a recent scientific conference on Human Health and Global Climate Change, cosponsored by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM)1. These models suggest that, without major changes in environmental policy, we could expect to see even greater changes in global climate over the next 100 years. These changes could produce alterations both in physical systems (e.g., higher temperatures, heavier rainfall, and rising sea level) and in ecosystems (e.g., forests, agriculture, marine ecologies, and the habitats of various insects and animals). In addition to the global changes associated with greenhouse warming, a continuing depletion of stratospheric ozone would increase the mount of ultraviolet radiation that reaches the Earth's surface, causing increased rates of skin cancer, cataracts, and immune suppression. The focus of concern to the conference participants was the substantial risks to human health, including both direct risks (e.g., death in heat waves or floods, skin cancer) and indirect risks (e.g., changes in food production or the distribution and incidence of vector-borne diseases) that are believed to be associated with changes in global climate. The indirect risks appear to be the most difficult to cope with, particularly those posed by emerging and reemerging infectious diseases such as cholera, malaria, dengue fever, and Hantavirus. These risks are of particular concern in regions and populations that are already vulnerable due to crowding, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and political or economic instability. The general agreement that emerged during the conference was that changes in the global climate could pose significant risks to human health. Much remains to be done to clarify the exact linkages between human activities, global climate change, and human health, but the lack of complete data should not be used as an excuse for inaction. Instead, the precautionary principle should apply: If the risk to public health is great, even if there is uncertainty, both policy and action should be biased in favor of precaution. In discussing the policy implications of global climate change for human health in the United States and the international community, participants identified a number of actions that should be taken, including (a) the creation of a global surveillance and response network; (b) increased 1   The conference was held at the National Academy of Sciences on September 11–12, 1995, and was attended by more than 300 people (see Appendix C).