Friday, July 1, 2016

Sounding the Alarm: Health in the Anthropocene

Published June 30, 2016 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

Butler CD: Sounding the alarm: Health in the anthropocene. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2016) 13 665; doi:610.3390/ijerph13070665.

Abstract: There is growing scientific and public recognition that human actions, directly and indirectly, have profoundly changed the Earth system, in a still accelerating process, increasingly called the “Anthropocene”. Planetary transformation, including of the atmosphere, climate, ecosystems and biodiversity, has enormous implications for human health, many of which are deeply disturbing, especially in low-income settings. A few health consequences of the Anthropocene have been partially recognized, including within environmental epidemiology, but their long-term consequences remain poorly understood and greatly under-rated. For example Syria could be a “sentinel” population, giving a glimpse to a much wider dystopian future. Health-Earth is a research network, co-founded in 2014, which seeks, with other groups, to catalyse a powerful curative response by the wider health community. This paper builds on a symposium presented by Health-Earth members at the 2015 conference of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology. It reviews and synthesizes parts of the large literature relevant to the interaction between the changing Earth system and human health. It concludes that this topic should be prominent within future environmental epidemiology and public health. Created by our species, these challenges may be soluble, but solutions require far more understanding and resources than are currently being made available.

EXTRACT (links added)

"One of the most authoritative warnings of potential global collapse is by Martin Rees, for five years President of the Royal Society. His book about this is starkly entitled Our Final Century (or in the U.S. edition “Our Final Hour”). There are many other cautions from significant figures, including Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England and Pope Francis. Admonitions have also come from a few with a health background, including Tony McMichael, a former president of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology.

More broadly among the health community, such counsel has had little effect, with exceptions such as some conferences, editorials, and the Wellcome Trust’s “Our Planet Our Health” grant round, announced in 2015. Although most health curriculi includes environmental health very little such training concerns systemic environmental (and “eco-social”) risks, including the relationship of these adverse global environmental changes and factors with conflict. Even within political science, few analysts accept that the civil war that started in Syria in 2011 has significant environmental as well as social roots, such as the intensifying drought and groundwater shortage. High human population growth also arguably had a role in Syria, by accelerating local resource depletion including of groundwater and by reducing the “demographic dividend” which, some analysts have long argued, helps to promote economic and human development, including through improved education.
Kelley et al. (and others, including in the military) have argued that climate change intensified the Syrian drought. Climate change can be conceptualized as a “risk multiplier” for conflict, not only in Syria, but in Darfur and Somalia, and in many unsettling future scenarios. Via this web of eco-social factors, Syria can be conceptualized as a “sentinel” population, a case study which is likely to be replicated in broad principle, though not in precise detail, if, as seems likely, sufficient future stresses occur.

Two recent papers and a commentary warn that life in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, especially near the Persian Gulf, will become increasingly difficult under some plausible climate change scenarios by 2100, due to the combination of rising temperatures and humidity. Although air conditioned life inside may be possible, how can the infrastructure be maintained? Will robots be sufficiently advanced? Will workers tending infrastructure do so only at night?

One of these papers warns of the impact on Haj pilgrims, which (due to its timing being determined by a lunar calendar) periodically occurs during the hottest months of the year. Abstaining from water during hot days, a requirement of Ramadan (also determined by a lunar calendar), could also become extremely problematic to health in hot and humid conditions. One of these articles, led by the director of the Max Planck Institute for chemistry also anticipates: “that climate change and increasing hot weather extremes in the Middle East and North Africa, a region subject to economic recession, political turbulence, and upheaval, may exacerbate humanitarian hardship and contribute to migration”.