Driven to Extremes: Health Effects of Climate Change

By Tibbetts, John | Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Driven to Extremes: Health Effects of Climate Change


Tibbetts, John, Environmental Health Perspectives


Last year was one for the record books. In 2006, the United States experienced the warmest surface temperature since 1895. It was also the eleventh year since 1995 to rank among the warmest worldwide ever recorded. The decade prior saw many other extreme weather events. In 2003, a brutal summer heat wave in Europe killed at least 22,000 people. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch stalled over Central America and released six feet of rain, causing massive mudslides and claiming 11,000 lives. After that storm, Honduras reported thousands of cases of cholera, malaria, and dengue fever.

Although climate change can't be blamed for any one particular weather disaster, it is responsible for longer-term trends that intensify weather around the world, spawning more heat waves, droughts, intense downpours, and floods. There are also fewer extreme cold events--bitterly cold days and nights--over most land areas. Even frost has become less frequent. Yet there is more intense precipitation, both rain and snow. So there is a greater likelihood of winter snowstorms but not more cold snaps.

There is a greater than 90% likelihood that such weather events will continue to become more frequent, and it is equally likely that global sea level rise will accelerate and that snow cover will recede during this century. Moreover, there is a 66-90% likelihood that future tropical cyclones (hurricanes and typhoons) will become more intense, with greater peak wind speeds and heavier rains, and that the land area affected by drought will increase. Many semiarid subtropical regions, already plagued by drought, could have as much as a 20% drop in rainfall by 2100. In other regions, it is already raining less often but harder, causing more extensive floods.

Those are some conclusions of the most recent assessment of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which on 2 February 2007 issued an 18-page summary of The Physical Science Basis, the first volume of the assessment. Hundreds of scientists write and review IPCC major assessments, which are released every six to seven years and represent a consensus of scientific opinion around the world. Working Group II is finalizing the assessment's second volume, Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, the summary of which is due for release 6 April 2007. The summary of the Working Group III volume, Mitigation of Climate Change, will be released in May 2007. The volumes themselves should be issued later in the year.

The 2007 IPCC assessment makes a more emphatic case than its 2001 antecedent that human activities are responsible for global warming. According to The Physical Science Basis, there is a greater than 90% probability that emissions of human-produced greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are responsible for accelerating natural warming trends.

Today's atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of nearly 380 ppm has risen from about 280 ppm in 1750--around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution--and 315 ppm just since 1958, according to the Mauna Loa Carbon Dioxide Record at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. During the twentieth century, the Earth's average surface temperature rose about 0.6[degrees]C. The Physical Science Basis forecasts a much faster rise in global temperature--a likely range of 1.7-4.4[degrees]C--by the end of the twenty-first century if carbon dioxide concentrations reach twice the atmospheric levels of the present day. Many climatologists believe this doubling of carbon dioxide could occur sometime after 2050 if burning of fossil fuels is not significantly reduced.

In compiling The Physical Science Basis, the members of Working Group I analyzed research from around the world and used supercomputer simulations to test how the planet is responding and will continue to respond to greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. "We are committed to a certain amount of climate change [because of past actions]," says Gerald A.

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