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Energy choices and health: a fine balance

Fortunately in our country we can be fairly confident that considerations about our energy future factor in direct environmental impacts but should we be going further and considering a wider climate change perspective and subsequent impact on our own health?

The two are closely intertwined; the health of our environment, locally and globally, and the impact on human health. Climate change has significant medical consequences.

Globally, cities with poor air quality are recording increasing rates of related poor health conditions.

And yet it is easier to see the direct link between smoking and lung cancer than it is to see how steadily increasing air pollution is causing a variety of diseases.

Doctors and most patients understand the effects on human health of diet, stress, lack of exercise, interrupted sleep and common diseases but we have less understanding of the effects of pollution and climate change on our health.

However, if we view some of the direct impacts of climate change identified by climate scientists through a health lens, such as increasing global temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather events then we see increases in the spread of disease-causing bacteria, poorer air and water quality and food security challenges.

Extreme weather events expose us to heatwaves and flooding and each event sets up the potential to alter the geographic distribution of illnesses.

Whether impacts from the energy sector are direct, such as from an oil spill or indirect from ecosystem changes, the human tolerance for environmental change has limits.

We know that when temperatures increase doctors see patients suffering the symptoms of heat stress, dizziness from reduced blood flow to the brain and vomiting.

We know doctors at the front line of extreme weather emergencies see patients with burns from uncontrolled fires, with cholera from bacteria in contaminated food or water and an increase in mosquito-borne diseases.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.

The impact on mental health is a whole other area to consider.

While the WHO also reports that the least able to cope will be the developing countries with weak health infrastructure, the energy policy choices we make here will impact the global environment.

The health impact of future decisions in energy are critical considerations for policy makers.

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