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Adapting to a Changing World

Posted by karen-smith-murphy on July 22, 2014

Our changing climate is impacting our lives.  From extreme heat to more severe storms, from droughts, famine and epidemics to wildfires and floods, we’re quickly learning that if we don’t mitigate and adapt, we’ll continue to pay the price.

According to a new report from the World Meteorological Organization, from 1970 to 2012, 8,835 disasters, 1.94 million deaths, and $2.4 trillion of economic losses were reported globally as a result of natural disasters such as droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, tropical cyclones and related health epidemics.  And as temperatures rise and more people move into more urban settings, these natural disasters are becoming more extreme and more deadly.

In the 1980s, droughts were among the world’s deadliest natural disasters.  Crop failures led to famine which caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in Northern Africa alone.  Thanks to new farming techniques, early warning systems, and better food distribution systems, droughts are killing fewer people around the world (adaptation works!).  But now another natural disaster is moving into the top spot: extreme heat.

From Brad Plumer at Vox.com:

But as droughts have become less deadly, heat waves seem to have become more so.  The WMO reports that heat waves were particularly lethal in the last decade, killing 72,000 people in Europe in 2003 and 55,000 people in Russia in 2010.

Here too, though, efforts are already underway to adapt.  In Europe, for instance, researchers have noted that many of the deaths in the 2003 heat wave occurred among the elderly with weak social networks and poor health care. (The heat wave followed right on the heels of a nasty flu outbreak.)  Better public-health infrastructure and monitoring might help here.

Likewise, scientists have observed that the urban heat island effect tends to exacerbate heat waves.  Because of all the buildings and cars and black pavement, cities tend to be even hotter than their surroundings. But there are ways to mitigate that.  One study found, for instance, that introducing more green spaces into a city could reduce the need for medical assistance during scorching heat waves by 50 percent.

Adapting to our changing world and bringing down urban temperatures will be more important as temperatures steadily continue to climb.  According to the latest data from NOAA, this June was the 38th consecutive June and 352nd consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average.  This problem is not going away without determined mitigation action.

Meanwhile, to help communities deal with the health problems caused by climate-driven hazards, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have put together a new set of guidelines.   Their recent report, “Assessing Health Vulnerability to Climate Change,” will help health departments identify their communities’ specific climate change-related health vulnerabilities.   It also provides guidance in the development of specific strategies to mitigate the health impacts of climate change.  The guide provides a five-step assessment process:

Determine the scope of the climate vulnerability assessment.

For these health outcomes, identify the known risk factors (e.g., socioeconomic factors, environmental factors, infrastructure, pre-existing health conditions).

Acquire information on health outcomes and associated risk factors at the smallest possible administrative unit.

Assess adaptive capacity in terms of the system’s ability to reduce hazardous exposure and cope with the health consequences resulting from the exposure.

Combine this information in a Geographic Information System (GIS) to identify communities and places that are vulnerable to disease or injury linked to the climate-related exposure.

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