Climate change as determinant of health: the 21st Century challenge

climate change 2019 glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina (Unsplash, 2019)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Mr. Gianluca Ceccarelli, medical student at University of Pisa, Italy. He is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.


“In our language the words “climate change” do not exist” said Giuseppe Villalaz interviewed for the Italian news magazine Internazionale. Villalaz is an environmental activist belonging to indigenous community of Kuna that has been living for almost a century along the Caribbean coast of Panama. Due to climate change, sea level is rising rapidly and threatens the life of the inhabitants of this region, who are forced to move to another land: they are progressively losing their crops, their houses and their assets and they are constrained to change their lives drastically.

In global health language, all the elements mentioned above – house, access to food and water, job and so on – are known as social determinants of health: they are defined as all the conditions in which people are born, grow, live and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the quality of daily life. It is not difficult to notice that all these determinants are strongly affected by climate change, in this specific case: people of Kuna will need to change their habits, their way to get food and water, their way to build houses due to the huge transformation of their natural habitat and this enormous overturning of their lifestyle will have a big impact on their health.

Food and water supplies are the most affected by environmental disasters, resulting in damaged crops, low yields and drought: shortages lead to rising food costs which tend to affect lower income groups, thereby impending their access to nutritious food and setting the stage for malnutrition. So climate change has an indirect effect on health, because it affects some of the most important determinants of health as air, food and water and it is responsible of global warming, hurricanes and floods, as well as transmission of infective diseases.

However, climate change has a direct effect on health, too: research has shown that human health is being adversely impacted by it. The mechanisms by which climate change impacts human health are as diverse and complex as the impacts and there are complex relationships between them. Decreased air quality and pollution are known to contribute to respiratory diseases which affect individual’s ability to work, contributing the cycle of vulnerability and there are lots of examples like this that could be done.

The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, highlights how the influence of environment and climate on our health is unmistakable by now. Despite the increased awareness about climate change, governments have not intervened on the implications in the healthcare caused by global warming with the necessary effectiveness yet: some estimates hold that 800’000 people die every year due to outdoor pollution and 1,5 million people die as a result of indoor pollution.

The objective is to provide a ‘new’ framework from which policy on climate change and human health can be developed and maximize effectiveness; as the social determinants of health consider health as a product individual lifestyle choices and the external factors that shape choices, we need to change our lifestyle now and to raise awareness so that we manage to stop consequences of our past mistakes.

About the author

Gianluca Ceccarelli, medical student at University of Pisa. He has been part of IFMSA
since 2014 and nowadays he is National Officer on Human Rights and Peace for SISM-
Italy. As international trainer he is passionate about learning styles and communication,
but his favourite research field is global health and how social factors impact on people
health. As responsible for human rights activities, he believes in a society without
inequalities and he dreams to embody the real meaning of social role that every doctor
should recognize.

 

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