Global warming may pose risks to human health

United States better able to cope, poor countries less so experts say; the elderly, sick, and poor are most at risk.

provided by Pew Charitable Trusts

lobal climate change may exacerbate health risks for the elderly, the infirm, and the poor although there is substantial capacity to reduce these risks according to a new report commissioned by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. And while the study finds that over the next few decades the United States may have sufficient resources to prevent the worst possibilities, poorer countries may not fare as well.

While current health concerns in the United States tend to revolve around such lifestyle issues as alcohol and tobacco use, lack of exercise, and poor nutrition, climate change raises the possibility that elevated temperatures, air contaminants, and changes in precipitation patterns could pose increased health risks. This new study, written by public health experts Dr. John Balbus of The George Washington University and Dr. Mark Wilson of The University of Michigan, sifts through the evidence of climate-related health risks and reaches the following conclusions:

  • If climate change results in more heat waves and air pollution episodes, disproportionately large and negative impacts on the elderly, the infirm, and the poor are likely to result.
  • While there are indications that a global warming trend may increase the risks of vector- and waterborne diseases, sanitation and public health systems in the United States are generally sufficient to prevent these diseases from dramatically increasing in incidence or distribution. However, many developing countries lack the resources and public health systems needed to prevent such outbreaks. The report says government officials the world over need to maintain and strengthen public health systems, including increased surveillance, and improved hygiene, water quality, and vector control.
  • The linkages between climate and human health are complex and not fully understood. However, uncertainty about adverse health effects should not be interpreted as certainty of no adverse health effects. Moreover, the potential for unexpected events -- e.g., sudden changes in climate or the emergence of new diseases annot be ruled out, the report says.

"There have been a lot of claims and counterclaims about the potential human health impacts of global climate change," said Pew Center President Eileen Claussen. "An honest assessment must acknowledge that the United States can probably avoid the worst scenarios of disease outbreaks from climate-related causes.

"At the same time, we should pay more attention to the climate-related health risks faced by people in less developed countries, and by the most vulnerable people in our own country," Claussen said. "And we need to beef up health surveillance systems to guard against the possible emergence of unexpected health threats."

A complete copy of this report and other Pew Center reports can be accessed from the Pew Center's web site,

The Pew Center was established in May 1998 by the Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the United States' largest philanthropies and an influential voice in efforts to improve the quality of the environment. The Pew Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan and independent organization dedicated to providing credible information, straight answers and innovative solutions in the effort to address global climate change. Eileen Claussen, the former US Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, leads the Pew Center. For more information, visit

The Pew Center includes the Business Environmental Leadership Council, a group of large, mostly Fortune 500 corporations all working with the Pew Center to address issues related to climate change. The companies do not contribute financially to the Pew Center; it is solely supported by contributions from charitable foundations.