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Gwynne Dyer was right: climate change is making us sick and desperate

in Confronting the Climate Crisis by

In 2009 I sat through a Gwynne Dyer lecture in Corner Brook. I recall feeling alarmed as the Newfoundland-born author and journalist laid out the apocalyptic scenario detailed in his book Climate Wars: extreme weather—precipitated by global warming—would lead to widespread insecurity, and as a result people and nations would be forced to compete for scarce and diminishing resources like food and water.

Fast-forward six years to 2015 and we are already beginning to see the grim impacts extreme weather events and temperatures have on human security and human health. 

Extreme weather and climate events

This year, like last year and the year before, new high temperature records and extreme weather events are being recorded, and wreaking havok, around the world.

This summer unprecedented rainfalls swept over northeastern Japan, triggering the worst flood in decades, with the town of Joso getting 500 mm of rain and more than 100,000 people being forced to flee their homes.

Last month floods and heavy rain in the countries surrounding the Bay of Bengal left at least 103 people dead in Myanmar, 28 people dead in Bangladesh, and at least 178 people in India.

In June India was also struck by a severe heat wave that reached abnormally high temperatures of almost 50 degrees Celsius, melting roads in the capital city, New Delhi, and causing 2,330 deaths.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA and Japan’s weather agency, July was the hottest month ever recorded — and the NOAA says 2015 is set to be the warmest year on record.

The Middle East and Europe were hit hardest, with the Netherlands reaching 38 degrees Celsius and Iran reaching 74 degrees Celsius with the humidity index.

The oceans are warming extremely fast too, with the 10 highest monthly departures from average temperatures having all occurred since April 2014.

Though we had a colder than usual summer in Newfoundland and Labrador, much of Canada experienced the kinds of extreme weather events that are being exacerbated by global warming:  hotter temperatures sparked wildfires across Western Canada, burning almost 4 million hectares of forest—close to double the annual average for that time of year—and displacing thousands of people.

The situation got so out of hand in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan that firefighters were recruited from Australia, New Zealand and Mexico, and Canadian troops were given a crash course in firefighting, to help battle the raging forest fires. 

Scientists have been warning that the increase in global temperatures will continue to worsen extreme weather conditions. A new study by 16 top climate scientists, including NASA’s former lead climate scientist James Hansen, says sea levels could rise 10 times faster than previously predicted, meaning upward of 10 feet by 2065. 

Climate change impacts on human health

Extreme weather events caused by climate change are already having severe impacts on human health and security. In the last 100 years the world has warmed by approximately 0.75 degrees Celsius, while the past three decades have been successively warmer than any preceding decade since record-keeping began.

A series of publications commissioned by leading medical research journal The Lancet concluded that climate change is the biggest global threat to human health, and that it has the potential to undermine a half century of significant advances in public health.

The 2015 Lancet Commission painted a more optimistic picture, suggesting climate change is the “greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.”

Framing climate change as a health issue rather than purely an environmental, economic or technological challenge can add a human face to the crisis, which can have more resonance.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) climate change is linked to around 150,000 human deaths each year, that number rising to an estimated 250,000 deaths annually between 2030 and 2050 as a result of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress.

There are three types of direct impacts of climate change on humans’health: extreme heat, patterns of infection and natural disasters, and variable rainfall patterns.

Heat waves are a dangerous natural hazard that can trigger human health risks such as heat rash, heat cramps, dehydration and heat strokes. The most vulnerable to heat-related illnesses are older adults, young children, people with medical conditions, and the poor who cannot afford luxuries like air conditioners or proper shelter.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the length, frequency and intensity of heat waves will increase over most land areas this century. As heat waves become more frequent and intense, they also impose a strain on transportation, infrastructure and water systems.

Rising sea levels and natural disasters like floods or hurricanes will destroy homes and vital infrastructure like hospitals and water facilities. According to the WHO, since 1960 the number of reported weather-related disasters has tripled and every year these disasters result in about 60,000 deaths.

Flood damage in Manila, Philippines 2012. Photo: by AusAID.
Flood damage in Manila, Philippines in 2012. Photo: AusAID.

Natural disasters can also trigger displacements and relocations, which in turn often lead to mental health crises and an increased likelihood of communicable diseases. Variable rainfall patterns can compromise sanitation by contaminating drinking water supplies and facilities, which in turn can lead to infection and the spread of communicable diseases and vector-borne diseases.

Warm temperatures also increase the spread of communicable and vector-borne diseases like Malaria, Dengue, Chikungunya, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and others. Vector-borne diseases are transmitted by bites of infected mosquitoes and other insects. Climate is a determinant in the occurrence rate of infectious diseases, mainly because the ambient temperature determines insects’ reproductive rates, biting behavior and survival, while many insect species are likely to relocate to northern regions where they never were before. 

While the effects of climate change will affect all populations, it is going to affect everyone differently, and some are more vulnerable than others. People living in Small Island developing countries, people living in coastal regions, megacities, and mountainous and polar regions are the most vulnerable.

Health risks in Canada

Canada is already experiencing the consequences of climate change, and Canadians are already feeling the health implications.

In 2013 the Alberta floods drove 100,000 people out of their homes, caused four deaths and left Albertans experiencing with stress and anxiety disorders after dealing with the traumatic event. Hotter weather conditions this summer sparked wildfires across Western Canada, burning 4 million hectares as of mid-August—close to double the annual average for this time of year—and displacing thousands of people. Smog alerts and poor air quality advisories across Canada were part of the associated risks of this summer’s wildfires in western Canada.

While no single event on its own can be attributed to global warming, the IPCC predicts that climate-change-related risks from extreme weather events will increase as the atmosphere continues to warm due to human activity. Recent research out of Switzerland claims the present day warming of 0.85 degrees Celcius above pre-Industrial times is already causing more frequent and intense extreme weather events.

Some areas in the Canadian Arctic have experienced 3-4 degrees Celsius in temperature rise and the people living there are being exposed to increasing incidences of waterborne diseases as a result of heavy rainfalls and rapid snowmelt, which has increased pathogens in the drinking water. This event is also affecting people in southern Canada, where many rely on groundwater instead of treated water. 

Pathogens contaminating groundwater sources as a result of rapid ice melt or floods can also affect Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as many people drink spring water and get sick. Communities like Black Tickle in Labrador, whose clean water insecurity has forced residents to drink contaminated water from still water deposits like bogs, are certainly more likely to see an increase in waterborne diseases as the planet continues to warm.

I talked to Gideon Forman, Climate Change and Transportation Policy Analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation, and was surprised to learn that rare vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease have already reached Canada. 

“Lyme disease used to be unknown in Canada and now this disease is moving into parts of southern of Canada…because the ticks that carry it are moving north because the weather is getting warmer,”he said.

“I think we need to do two sorts of things,”he continued. “One is adaptation, [which] means helping people. Particularly if you are talking Canada, we need to help people in low-income communities which are going to feel the brunt of this the worst. We need to help them adapt. We also need to help low-lying cities, coastal cities. Places like Vancouver and Halifax are going to be particularly vulnerable because they are right on the ocean, and of course one of the effects of climate change is ocean rise; sea levels are going up.

“I think that it is really important that we put a lot of emphasis on trying to prevent climate change, and that means moving away from a fossil fuel-based economy to an economy that is based on renewable energy,”he continued. “And in places like Alberta that means phasing out coal. In the Maritimes, in Nova Scotia, that means phasing out coal-fired power, ramping up renewable energy, getting more power from places like the Bay of Fundy.”

The human body is not prepared to deal with extreme heat. Without addressing some of the drivers of extreme weather events around the world we will certainly see increased mortality related directly to heat, infectious diseases and floods.

Paris is a good beginning but it won’t be enough 

With little more than two months remaining for world leaders to sign a global climate agreement at the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris, the climate targets submitted so far in the Intended National Determined Contributions (INDC) don’t add up to the type of response that is needed to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsiusthe acceptable threshold established by scientists and the international community.

A report released earlier this monthat the UN climate talks in Bonn by the Climate Action Tracker assessed 64.5 per cent of global emissions in the climate targets submitted so far, covering countries like the U.S., China, Canada, Australia and Mexico, and concluded that we remain on a course to global warming of 3 degrees Celsius by 2100 —a point of no return in terms of ecosystem collapse.

The Climate Action Tracker singled out the INDC pledges from Russia, New Zealand and Canada—not surprisingly—as having climate pledges inconsistent with their stated 2050 long-term goals.

“It is clear that if the Paris meeting locks in present climate commitments for 2030, holding warming below 2 degrees could essentially become infeasible, and 1.5°C beyond reach,” Bill Hare of Climate Analytics said recently.

What these findings highlight is the fact that the policies and pledges at the climate negotiations are not reflecting the complexity and the reality in the change of pace in our environment and atmosphere. 

Both short and long-term climate commitments are needed to adequately address the climate crisis. What is being proposed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is that the Paris deal include legally-binding 5-year mitigation commitment cycles to allow for countries using up-to-date climate data and scientific knowledge to inform policy, review climate commitments and increase their momentum in the lead up to 2030. The science says we cannot wait until 2030 for the Paris deal to kick in, meanwhile being locked in to a dangerous high-emission trend until then. That’s why short-term steps are needed in the lead up to 2030.

"Come hell or high water," by Michael Pinsky.
Climate change isn’t coming. It’s here. And it’s time to do something about it. Photo by Michael Pinsky.

As we have already seen with climate events like the heat waves in Europe and Eastern Asia, the floods in Japan and the wildfires in western Canada, we are already experiencing an unprecedented year of global warming and the societal impacts of climate change.

If governments don’t ramp up on their climate commitments and policies to cut emissions,phase out fossil fuels and make the transition to a clean, renewable economy—which has been substantially argued is not only necessary but economically feasible and technologically possible—then more tragic events like those precipitated by the Syrian refugee crisis will become more frequent as extreme weather events and ‘natural’ disasters drive people out of their homes, make them sick and increase social instability due to a higher demand on few resources.

Just like Dyer said in Climate Wars.

Editor’s note: A paragraph was added Sunday, Sept. 27 under the section “Health risks in Canada” to make clear that while no single extreme weather event can be attributed to climate change, events like droughts and floods are expected to increase in both frequency and intensity as the world warms because of human activity.

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