Feature Climate change and health

Unhealthier by degrees

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d6893 (Published 26 October 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6893
  1. Henry Nicholls, freelance science journalist, London
  1. henry{at}henrynicholls.com

More than 300 delegates from healthcare, the military, climate science, industry, business, and politics met at a BMJ conference last week to consider the risk climate change poses to human health. Henry Nicholls reports

Just over two decades ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its first report. It was a groundbreaking document, notable for its impressive size. “It was about twice as thick as the average New York telephone book,” recalls Tony McMichael, professor of population health at the Australian National University in Canberra. But it had at least one serious omission. “In it, one found just a few paragraphs on the issues of human health,” he says.

This is puzzling in the extreme. Somehow the real impact that climate change will have on humans—for many of us within our lifetimes—has passed us by. This has got to change, says Professor McMichael, who had a key role in beefing up this section in subsequent IPCC reports. “This is not just an issue of collateral damage.” The consequences of climate change for human health and survival are absolutely fundamental, he says.

Professor McMichael was talking last week at a special event in London, hosted by the BMJ, to consider the health and security perspectives of climate change.

Rapid industrialisation, torching of fossil fuels, and extraordinary population growth might have placed natural systems under untold stress, delegates heard. But it’s climate change that is the real game changer. With global warming, we will have to confront collapsing food production, water shortages, famine, and mass migration. Violence and conflict are almost inevitable.


Global warming is likely to have a deep and mostly negative effect on human health. Increasing temperature can have a direct effect, as was shown by the heatwave that engulfed Europe in 2003. In France, which was …

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