Climate crisis already causing deaths and childhood stunting, report reveals
Climate change is “absolutely” already causing deaths, according to a new report on the health impacts of the climate crisis, which also predicts climate-related stunting, malnutrition and lower IQ in children within the coming decades.
The report, From Townsville to Tuvalu, produced by Monash University in Melbourne, pulled together scientific research from roughly 120 peer-reviewed journal articles to paint a picture of the health-related impacts of the climate emergency in Australia and the Pacific region.
It pointed to a 2018 report from the World Health Organisation, which predicted that between 2030 and 2050, global warming would cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year from heat stress, malnutrition, malaria and diarrhoea. But Misha Coleman, one of the report’s authors, stressed that deaths were already occurring.
“There are absolutely people dying climate-related deaths, [especially due to] heat stress right now,” she said.
“During the Black Saturday fires [in Victoria in 2009] for example, we know that people were directly killed by the fires, but there were nearly 400 additional deaths in those hot days from heat stress and heatstroke,” said Coleman.
The Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009 took 173 lives. Photograph: Rhys Smith/Newspix / Rex Features
A 2017 report in the journal Nature predicted that by 2100, 75% of people around the world would be exposed to heatwaves extreme enough to kill.
The report found that as well as deaths caused directly by severe weather events such as hurricanes, flooding and fires, the “more deep and insidious impact” came from the secondary impacts of climate change.
“Severe weather events are causing flooding, particularly in informal settlements in the Pacific, that leads to diseases including diarrhoea, that can be very serious and fatal in people, particularly children,” said John Thwaites, chair of the Sustainable Development Institute at Monash University.
The report warned that rising global temperatures would expand the habitat of mosquitos, exposing more people to diseases including dengue, chikungunya and zika, and would cause other diseases to spread into Australia, including Nipah virus, which is spread by bats, and Q fever, which is already prevalent around Townsville.
“Q fever is something that is carried by a lot of wild and domesticated animals,” said Coleman. “As climate change degrades their habitat through fires and drought, these animals go looking for green grass and fresh water [and] they find themselves on golf courses and on retirees’ two-acre blocks.”
Coleman said the problem comes when the infected animals defecate on the lawns and the poo is then run over by humans with lawnmowers. “It becomes airborne, it becomes this highly, highly transmissible toxin, that’s why it’s being described, even by the Lancet medical journal, as a bioweapon in our own backyard.”
Flooding in Townsville, north Queensland, in February 2019. Photograph: Andrew Rankin/AAP
Climate change is expected to pose particularly stark issues for childhood development, with the report citing research that shows children born to women who were pregnant while they experienced floods in Brisbane in 2011 had lower cognitive capacity (equivalent to at least 14 points on an IQ scale), smaller vocabularies and less imaginative play at the age of two.
The decreased nutritional value of staple crops as a result of higher CO2 concentration was also expected to cause stunting, anaemia and malnutrition in children, within 10 to 20 years.
“What’s the future for our children?” said Coleman. “These events are more common, more frequent and not going to become less so in a short amount of time.”