National Environmental
Health Association Position on

Global Climate Change 

Adopted July 2, 1997

Background and General Discussion

The impact of greenhouse gas emissions on both human beings and the global climate has been greatly debated in recent years (1). According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there has been a documented increase in global temperature measurements of 0.3 to 0.6 C over the last century (2). Further, a recent report from the National Research Council underscores the importance of anthropogenic (man-made) aerosols as agents of climate change (3,4). Purpose The National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) supports the precept that anthropogenic sources, specifically greenhouse gases, are responsible for a significant portion of the measured change in global climate. Further, NEHA supports the concept of an association between global warming and an increased risk to public health. Reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere will benefit human health. This position paper reviews current information on the status of global climate change with particular emphasis on the implications for environmental and public health. It is intended to be used as a basis from which environmental and public health practitioners and colleagues in related fields can initiate discussions with policy makers at all levels; local, state, national, and worldwide. Problem Statement Currently, global temperatures are projected to increase by 1.0 to 4.5 C during the next century, primarily because of a projected doubling of greenhouse gas levels (5­8).

According to Patz et al., global climate change could have both direct and indirect effects on human health (9). Severe heat waves could cause an increase in morbidity and mortality, as in the over 500 heat-related deaths seen over the course of a few days in Chicago during the summer of 1995 (10­12). Additionally, ozone, a photochemical pollutant, is typically created under conditions of hot temperatures and stagnant air containing nitrogen oxides. Currently more than 51 million Americans live in areas where ozone levels exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (U.S. EPA's) standard of 0.12 parts per million (13).

As noted by several researchers, climate change is partly responsible for the recent resurgence and re-emergence of some diseases, especially vector-borne diseases (14­17). Warmer temperatures and changes in rainfall have created ideal conditions for vectors and the pathogens to survive in some areas that were previously inhospitable to them. As an example, tropical and subtropical areas that favor malaria-transmitting mosquitoes would expand, leading to an additional 50 to 80 million cases of malaria each year by the end of the next century (18,19).

Global climate change may also be a threat to agriculture, particularly as a result of a drop in monsoonal rains available (20,21). Aerosols formed from sulfur compounds, along with greenhouse gases, have been projected to combine with the current greenhouse effect to cause a seven to 14 percent drop in monsoon rainfall over India and parts of China by the middle of the next century, which is considered to be a significant threat to agriculture (18). Additionally, loss of arable land due to rising oceans (22,23) and shifts in arable zones (24) also threatens agriculture. All of these could put an additional 300 million people at risk from hunger (25).

Recommended Action

  • Support legislation to mitigate source emissions in the environment that negatively affect human health. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate that the ban on the production of chlorofluorocarbons and other halogenated compounds is resulting in decreased levels of certain greenhouse gases. Ozone-depleting compounds in the lower atmosphere apparently peaked in 1994; concentrations in the upper atmosphere are expected to peak between 1997 and 1999.
  • Target research to more accurately predict the effects of pollution sources on global climate change; specifically, research is needed that could establish the influence of anthropogenic aerosols on climate. Currently, estimates of cooling from aerosols involve very large uncertainties, and this cooling may be negating virtually most of the effects of greenhouse gases. If this is true, global temperatures could actually be far more sensitive to greenhouse gases than previously expected, and global temperature could increase dramatically in the future (26).
  • Support research necessary to bring to the forefront the association between climate change and changes in global health conditions. The research agenda should include the effects of global warming on heat-related mortality and morbidity; vector-borne infectious diseases, pathogen replication and distribution ranges; malnutrition from threatened agriculture, especially in developing countries; and amplified epidemics of diseases, such as cholera, stemming from proliferation of algae blooms.
  • Encourage and facilitate intergovernmental cooperation and multilateral agreements on important environmental issues related to global climate change. This includes providing technical assistance to developing industrial nations and remedial work with heavily industrialized Eastern European countries
  • Support existing technologies that result in a "cleaner" environment and sustainable resources; as new technology becomes available, revisit air emission regulations to better predict the effects of greenhouse gases. Stricter enforcement of current air emissions legislation should be implemented; at a minimum, maintain current funding levels for federal, state, and local environmental agencies that enforce air emission regulations.
  • Educate key public health and policy institutions by disseminating information on the relationship between climate change and environmental and public health.

    Method of Implementation

    Upon adoption, NEHA should disseminate this paper as widely as possible by release to the membership, publication in the Journal of Environmental Health, provision of copies of this paper to affiliates to share with their members, and provision of copies of this paper to similar professional associations for their review. Affiliates and members should be encouraged to provide comments to legislators based upon the information contained herein, or to provide a copy of this document as augmentation to their own comments.

    Fiscal Impact

    The committee foresees the only fiscal impact on NEHA with the adoption of this paper to be the cost of making and mailing copies.

    (Original paper prepared by Timothy Radtke, M.S.E.H., C.I.H. (Chair), Environmental Health Scientist, U.S. Public Health Service; Ginger L. Gist, Ph.D., D.A.A.S., Senior Environmental Health Scientist, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; and Thomas E. Wittkopf, M.P.A., R.S. Director, Environmental Health Division, Marathon County Health Department.)

    References

    1. Anonymous (September 13, 1996), "Strengthened U.S. Commitment Lights a Fire Under Global Warming Debate," p. A4.

    2. Heinloth, K., and R.P. Karimanzira (1994), "Outcomes and Policy Recommendations from the IPCC-AFOS Working Group on Climate Change Response Strategies and Emission Reductions," Climatic Change, 27:139-146.

    3. National Research Council, Panel on Aerosol Radiative Forcing and Climate Change (1996), A Plan for a Research Program on Aerosol Radiative Forcing and Climate Change, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

    4. Schwartz, S.E., and M.O. Andreae (1996), "Uncertainty in Climate Change Caused by Aerosols," Science, 272:1121-1122.

    5. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1990), Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment, J.T. Houghton, J.J. Ephraums, and G.J. Jenkins, eds. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

    6. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1992), Climate Change 1992: The Supplementary Report to the IPCC Scientific Assessment, J.T. Houghton, B.A. Callander, and S.K. Varney, eds., Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

    7. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1994), Radiative Forcing of Climate Change, the 1994 Report of the Scientific Assessment Working Group of IPCC: Summary for Policy Makers, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    8. Sellers, P.J., L. Bounoua, G.J. Collatz, D.A. Dazlich, S.O. Los, D.A. Randall, et al. (1996), "Comparison of Radiative and Physiological Effects of Doubled CO2 on Climate," Science, 271:1402-1406.

    9. Patz, J.A., J.M. Balbus-Kornfeld, T.A. Burke, and P.R. Epstein (1996), "Global Climate Change and Emerging Infectious Diseases," JAMA, 275(3):217-223.

    10. Haines, A., and C. Fuchs (1991), "Potential Impacts on Health of Atmospheric Change," Journal of Public Health Medicine, 13:69-80.

    11. Kalkstein, L.S., and K.E. Smoyer (1993), "The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health: Some International Implications," Experencia, 49:469-479.

    12. Grant, L.D. (1990), "Respiratory Effects Associated with Global Climate Change," Global Atmospheric Change and Public Health, J.C. White, ed., New York: Elsevier.

    13. Breslin, K. (1995), "Focus: The Impact of Ozone," Environmental Health Perspectives, 103(7-8):660-664.

    14.Morse, S.S. (1995), "Factors in the Emergence of Infectious Diseases," Emerging Infectious Diseases, 1:7-15.

    15. Morse, S.S., and A. Schluederberg (1990), "Emerging Viruses: The Evolution of Viruses and Viral Diseases," Journal of Infectious Diseases, 162:1-7.

    16. Morse, S.S. (1993), "Examining the Origins of Emerging Viruses," Emerging Viruses, S.S. Morse, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 10-28.

    17. Satcher, D. (1995), "Emerging Infections: Getting Ahead of the Curve," Emerging Infectious Diseases, 1:1-6.

    18. Potential Health Effects of Climatic Change (1990), World Health Organization.

    19. Martens, W.J.M., T.H. Jetten, A.J. McMichael, L.W. Niessen, and J. Rotmans (1995), "Potential Impact of Global Climate Change on Malaria Risk," Environmental Health Perspectives, 103(5):458-464.

    20. Brock, C.A., K.R. Chan, P. Hamill, H.H. Jonsson, and J.C. Wilson (1995), "Particle Formation in the Upper Tropical Troposphere: A Source of Nuclei for the Stratospheric Aerosol," Science, 270:1650-1653.

    21. Mudur, G. (1995), "Monsoon Shrinks with Aerosol Models," Science, 270:1922.

    22. Mitchell, J., J. Gregory, T. Johns, and S. Tett (1995), "Climate Response to Increasing Levels of Greenhouse Gases and Sulphate Aerosols," Nature, 376:501-504.

    23. Rott, H., T. Nagler, and P. Skvarca (1996), "Rapid Collapse of Northern Larsen Ice Shelf, Antarctica," Science, 271:788-792.

    24. Postel, S.L., G.C. Daily, and P.R. Ehrlich (1996), "Human Appropriation of Renewable Fresh Water," Science, 271:785-788.

    25. Parry, M.L., and C. Rosenzweig (1993), "Food Supply and the Risk of Hunger," Lancet, 342:1345-1347.

    26. Schwartz, S.E., and M.O. Andreae (1996), "Uncertainty in Climate Change Caused by Aerosols," Science, 272:1121-1122.

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