Why we must save the environment in order to save ourselves

People have always been reluctant to suffer inconveniences for the sake of the environment. The self-absorbed, instantly gratified millenial has neither the time nor the patience to install a solar panel on the roof when there are cheaper energy alternatives available. A 2013 study published in Nature Climate Change confirmed that human beings are too selfish to endure present pain to avert future climate change.[1] The knowledge that the full effects of climate change will not be felt during our lifetime reduces our willingness to sacrifice present convenience for a future we will never see.

The study, conducted by American and German researchers, paid a fixed sum of money to each participant in a group of six. Over ten contribution rounds, each participant was asked to choose how much to contribute to a climate change account. They were told that if the group reached a certain amount of money at the end of the ten rounds, this would be enough to avert climate change and each participant would be rewarded with some money back. As a group, members would benefit if they collectively invested enough to reach that final target (and receive the payout) but individually members were incentivized to keep their money to themselves, in the hope that the rest of the group would invest enough to reach the target. The participants were paid their endowment on three different time horizons and the results revealed that the more delayed the payout was, the less likely the experimental group was to invest sufficient money to avert climate change. The authors concluded:

Applying our results to international climate-change negotiations paints a sobering picture. Owing to intergenerational discounting, cooperation will be greatly undermined if, as in our setting, short-term gains can arise only from defection. This suggests the necessity of introducing powerful short-term incentives to cooperate, such as punishment, reward or reputation, in experimental research as well as in international endeavors to mitigate climate change.

A recent poll of the American public conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University and Resources for the Future, also found that willingness to pay an additional amount (on top of taxes) to reduce the effects of climate change declined as the amount payable increased.[2] The threat of climate change is insufficient to withstand concerns about present wealth.

The walking dead © Katrina Geddes

Given public reluctance to pay for a future that will not be experienced, perhaps it is time to reframe the conversation. To explain to people that saving the environment is not just about securing a future for our grandchildren, but about preserving the present for ourselves. Current climate trends are already endangering the health of people in many countries. Air pollution, for example, is a significant environmental health risk. In 2012 alone, exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants killed more than 7 million people worldwide.[3]

Dr Mara Neira from the World Health Organization (WHO) explains that the effects of climate change will exacerbate existing global health issues. Undernutrition, which already claims 3 millions lives per year, may increase as rising temperatures and more variable rainfall reduce crop yields in many parts of the world.

Formerly thought to affect tropical regions only, a 2013 study showed that higher seasonal temperatures also have a detrimental effect on crop production in temperate regions.[4] High temperatures can increase the risk of drought, limit photosynthesis rates and reduce light interception by accelerating phenological development.[5] In particular, short occurrences of extremely high temperatures (“heat stress” events) can drastically reduce the production of important food crops such as rice, maize, soybean and wheat. The study found that global hotspots of heat stress overlap with important agricultural regions in Eastern China, the Northern United States, South-Western Russian Federation and Southern Canada. This indicates that agricultural production in temperate countries may suffer substantial production losses from climate change, extending the findings of previous studies that impacts would occur mainly in sub-tropical and tropical regions.[6] Impacts include greater crop water demand (due to increased evapo-transpiration), accelerated crop development (shortening of crop cycles), and increased night respiration.

There are concerns that global food shortages could dramatically raise food prices, sparking riots and civil unrest similar to the food riots that occurred in 2008.[7] In 2010, when more than 20% of Russian agricultural production areas were affected by unprecedented high temperatures, wheat prices skyrocketed by up to 50% globally.[8] The authors of the study warn that without mitigation measures to combat climate change or invest in local adaptive measures (e.g. the development of resistant varieties or changes in crop management), countries with extensive agricultural lands in continental regions at high latitudes may experience significant crop losses.

                           Protests in Cape Town against high food, fuel and electricity prices in 2008.

                           Protests in Cape Town against high food, fuel and electricity prices in 2008.

Climate change is also expected to affect the incidence, seasonal transmission and geographic range of a variety of infectious diseases, including dengue fever, schistosomiasis, Lyme disease, and onchocerciasis (West African river blindness).[9] Tick-borne (viral) encephalitis in Sweden has reportedly increased in response to a series of warmer winters over the past two decades, and changes in the intensity and frequency of the El Niño cycle since 1975 have strengthened the cycle’s relation to cholera outbreaks in Bangladesh.[10] Millions of people living at higher altitudes in the tropics face a greater risk of contracting malaria due to rising temperatures.[11] Both the single-celled microbe which causes malaria (plasmodium falciparum) and the malaria-carrying mosquito (Anopheles gambiae) require temperatures above 16°C for their development. In addition, higher ambient temperatures support faster development of the malaria parasite within the mosquito and increase the insect’s metabolic rate, leading to more frequent blood meals.[12] As a result, rising temperatures facilitate the spread of malaria to higher altitudes that were traditionally malaria-free.

Rising waters © Katrina Geddes

Climate change is also linked to the heightened intensity of extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy. Although it is difficult to attribute the occurrence of such events to climate change,[13] rising sea levels contributed to the scale of the surge and flooding from Sandy.[14] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) observes that “it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with ongoing increases of tropical sea-surface temperatures”.[15] Developmental inequalities influence local coping and adaptive capacity to extreme weather events. Developed countries such as the United States are financially able to rebound from such events and introduce coping mechanisms for the future, whereas developing countries are severely debilitated by such events for extended periods of time, significantly increasing their health impact. The 2010 floods in Pakistan, for instance, killed 2,000 people, left 4 million people homeless and submerged one-fifth of the country’s total land area underwater. Pakistan’s agriculture industry was predicted to take up to two years to start recovering.[16] If climate change continues to increase the severity of flooding, its future health impacts may include death and injury, contaminated drinking water, hazardous material spills, increased populations of disease-carrying insects, increased incidence of diarrhoeal and respiratory diseases, and community displacement.

Flooding in Pakistan. Image credit: www.outsidethebeltway.com

Flooding in Pakistan. Image credit: www.outsidethebeltway.com

Heatwaves are also expected to increase in frequency and intensity as a result of climate change.[17] Much of the resulting mortality is related to cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and respiratory conditions, often concentrated in the elderly. More than 2000 excess deaths were reported in England and Wales during the heatwave that affected most of western Europe in 2003, although the greatest mortality impact was felt in France.[18] In Australia, for a medium-emissions climate change setting in 2050, the annual number of deaths attributable to excess heat in capital city populations is expected to increase by 50%.[19]

Potential health effects of climate variability and change, from Haines and Patz, JAMA, 7 January 2004, Vol. 291, page 10 © 2004 American Medical Association

The combined potential of, inter alia, global food shortages, geographically expanding infectious diseases, coastal flooding and increased intensity of extreme weather events poses a grave risk to present and future human health. Compared with a future without climate change, the WHO predicts the following additional deaths for the year 2030: 38 000 due to heat exposure in elderly people, 48 000 due to diarrhoea, 60 000 due to malaria, and 95 000 due to childhood undernutrition.[20] Climate change is projected to cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050.[21] The WHO recognizes both the limitations of its models and its projections, stating that:

Better evidence is required regarding future risks to health from global climate change in order to inform mitigation (low carbon) and adaptation (public health) policy development. Future climate change is likely to affect proximal and distal (upstream) risk factors for a wide range of health outcomes, but only some of these causal pathways can be modelled using currently available methods and at the global level.

However, it argues that overall, climate change is projected to have substantial adverse impacts on future mortality, even considering only a subset of the expected health effects, under optimistic scenarios of future socioeconomic development, with adaptation. The health effects of climate change are likely to be concentrated in poorer populations at low latitudes, where the most significant climate-sensitive health outcomes (malnutrition, diarrhoea and malaria) are already common, and where vulnerability to climate effects is greatest. As these diseases mainly affect younger age groups, the burden of disease caused by climate change may be borne mainly by children in developing countries.[22] Urgent action must be taken both to mitigate, and adapt to, the effects of climate change to ensure that these children have a future.

The future © Katrina Geddes 

Analysts have identified three major health-sector strategies to manage the health effects of climate change: promotion of mitigation, tackling the pathways that lead to ill health, and strengthening health systems.[23] Mitigation involves reduced greenhouse gas emissions, a low-carbon transition and a transfer of resources to developing countries to help them industrialize in low-carbon ways.

Pathways to ill-health can be managed through better information, poverty reduction, technological innovation, and greater coordination of national and international institutions. Strengthening health systems requires greater investment in human and technological capital in order to provide effective public health responses to climate-induced threats to health and promote the use of renewable energy within health facilities.

Source: McMichael, A. et al (see [9] below) 

The health sector has not been sufficiently prominent in campaigns against climate change, despite its adverse health effects. Alongside its demands for greater access to medicines, it should be lobbying for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The right to health cannot be fully realized without food to eat or clean air to breathe. Given the reluctance of self-interested individuals to make present-day sacrifices for a future they will never see, it is important to stress that climate change already presents a significant threat to human health and will continue to do so unless mitigation and adaptation measures are adopted. Reframing the urgency of climate change action in terms of self-preservation may be just the catalyst that the climate change movement needs. Unless significant action is taken soon, we will watch our futures fall away from us.      


Written by Katrina Geddes. Published February 20, 2015. 


[1] Walsh, B. “Why we don’t care about saving our grandchildren from climate change”, TIME, Oct. 21, 2013, available at: http://science.time.com/2013/10/21/why-we-dont-care-about-saving-our-grandchildren-from-climate-change/

[2] Davenport, C. & Connelly, M. “Most Republicans Say They Back Climate Change, Poll Finds”, The New York Times, Jan. 30 2105, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/31/us/politics/most-americans-support-government-action-on-climate-change-poll-finds.html

[3] Neira, M. “Climate Change: An Opportunity for Public Health”, WHO Commentary, Sept. 19, 2014, available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/commentaries/climate-change/en/

[4] Teixeira, E. et al. “Global hot-spots of heat stress on agricultural crops due to climate change”, Agricultural and Forest Meterology, Mar. 15, 2013, available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168192311002784

[5] See [4] above. 

[6] See [4] above. 

[7] Ahmed, N. “Why food riots are likely to become the new normal”, The Guardian, March 6, 2013, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2013/mar/06/food-riots-new-normal

[8] See [4] above. 

[9] McMichael, A. et al. “Climate change and human health: present and future risks”, Lancet 2006; 367; 859-69, available at: http://saludsindanio.org/sites/default/files/documents-files/151/Climate_Chg_Human_Health.pdf

[10] See [9] above. 

[11] Connor, S. “Climate change is increasing the risk of malaria for people living in mountainous regions in the tropics”, The Independent, March 6, 2014, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/climate-change-is-increasing-the-risk-of-malaria-for-people-living-in-mountainous-regions-in-the-tropics-9174448.html 

[12] World Health Organization, “Quantitative risk assessment of the effects of climate change on selected causes of death, 2030s and 2050s”, 2014

[13] IPCC, “Managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation”, Special Report of the IPCC, 2012, Cambridge University Press, available at: http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/images/uploads/SREX-All_FINAL.pdf 

[14] Sanders, A. “New climate change report paints alarming future for Staten Island: 10 things you should know”, silive.com, Feb. 17, 2015, available at: http://www.silive.com/news/index.ssf/2015/02/climate_change_report_new_york.html

[15] IPCC, “Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report”, Switzerland, available at: http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/syr/ar4_syr_full_report.pdf

[16] Khan, R. “The floods in Pakistan show our vulnerability to climate chaos”, The Guardian, Nov. 10, 2010, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2010/nov/10/pakistan-climate-change-kiribati-conference

[17] Haines, A. et al. “Climate change and human health: Impacts, vulnerability and public health”, Public Health 2006; 120; 585 – 596, available at: http://www.bu.edu/sph/files/2012/08/Haines_2006_Climate_Change_and_Human_Health_-_Impacts_Vulnerability_and_Public_Health.pdf

[18] See [17] above. 

[19] See [9] above. 

[20] World Health Organization, “Quantitative risk assessment of the effects of climate change on selected causes of death, 2030s and 2050s”, 2014 

[21] World Health Organization, “Quantitative risk assessment of the effects of climate change on selected causes of death, 2030s and 2050s”, 2014

[22] See [17] above. 

[23] Costello, A. et al. “Global health and climate change: moving from denial and catastrophic fatalism to positive action”, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A. 2011, 369; 1866 – 1882, available at: http://classic.rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1942/1866.full.pdf+html