What does “Climategate” mean for health?

The unauthorized release of climate researchers emails, and both accepted and alleged errors in the IPCC reports, have led to widespread negative reporting of climate science, just as the public health community has begun to engage with the issue. So, are we wasting our time in looking at climate change?

At the most basic level, the answer is clearly no. The conclusion that climate change is happening, and is due mainly to human activities, is based on well-established physics, supported by a large body of observations, and endorsed by almost all experts publishing on the issue. This is equivalent to the expert consensus that HIV causes AIDS, or that smoking is an important risk factor for lung cancer. Extraordinary evidence would now be needed to overturn any of these positions.

Nonetheless, the new criticisms may well affect public opinion – which in several countries is now very much at odds with the expert assessment.  While many commentators attribute this to the actions of the scientists concerned, the nature of modern communication of scientific issues is also likely to be at least as important.  This includes the media practice of providing balance only by giving equal coverage to extreme opposing positions, the actions of large commercial and ideological lobbies that seek to amplify evidence and viewpoints that support their own vested interests and attack those that do not, and a strong tendency for people to ignore information that suggests that they should make unwelcome behavioural changes.

While the media debate continues, the real question for the public health community is not “is climate science perfect?”, but “are we proposing the most responsible actions, in the light of the best available evidence?”

The balance of evidence indicates that climate change will mainly have negative effects, but the uncertainty is large in both directions, ranging from the potential for some positive effects in some populations, to diverse, widespread and severe impacts on health and health equity.  Fortunately, there is much more certainty about the best responses.  Actions such as controlling vector-borne diseases and providing clean water and sanitation, would both save lives now, and increase resilience to gradual climate change.

The same approach applies to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to reduce climate change.  Many of the necessary actions bring cost savings, while many others would bring enough public health benefit (for example through reduced air pollution) to repay the cost of investment. Policies such as cleaner and more equitable energy provision and more sustainable transport systems, are therefore good both for public health and for the environment.

Although we are confident in the measures that we are promoting, we need to remain absolutely open to any serious new findings that have a direct bearing on policy. The recent furore does not seem to have brought forward any such evidence. We continue to work with countries that have a  range of health stresses and are now at increasing risk of being flooded by rising sea-levels and more severe weather, or suffering prolonged drought, or are struggling to provide clean energy to increasing populations. Unfortunately, nothing in the recent coverage suggests that we will be able to give up this work anytime soon.

A longer version of this article, with supporting references, was published as “Science, media and public perception: implications for climate and health policies” in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization.  http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/88/4/10-077362/en/index.html

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