Human Dimensions of Global Warming

Vulnerability and Adaptation


Vulnerability to Climate Impacts on Health

From the prior material, it is clear that people who live in the least-developed countries are most vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change. Whether or not they are more exposed or less exposed to climate change impacts than residents of the developed nations is not the crucial determinant of their vulnerability: because of their extreme sensitivity and lack of adaptive capacity, a small climate change and relatively mild exposure could lead to calamitous health consequences.

Despite their generally good health, many people living in developed countries are vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change because of income, education, and other disparities. The infirm, either through age, illness, handicap, or addiction, are significantly more vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change than strong, healthy people are. The poor are more vulnerable on average because they not only have less access to good food and health care, but also are more likely to be old or very young, ill, handicapped, or addicted. In terms of geographic location, those individuals who fall into those categories who live either in rural areas or the most densely populated urban areas are quite vulnerable: rural poor often live in substandard housing and have limited access to safe water, adequate nutrition, and health care; inner city poor often live in substandard housing with unsafe water and inadequate nutrition –– they often cannot afford health care. In both areas, access to air conditioning is critical for withstanding heat waves.

Adaptation Strategies

There are many strategies for reducing the health impacts of climate change. In general, the most effective plan is to enhance overall population health by improving access to water and sanitation, strengthening food security, and revising health care, thereby making people less vulnerable. For heat waves, heat warning systems –– such as those recently adopted by Philadelphia and Chicago –– can alert people to the actions they should take when potentially deadly heat waves are forecast. Society should also provide air-conditioned spaces for the infirm and transport to those spaces when heat waves strike. For water-borne and vector-borne diseases, increased monitoring by local, state, national, and international health agencies is necessary. For the impacts of floods, droughts, and other natural hazards, improved forecasts and warnings, as well as emergency planning are imperative. For allergens and air pollution, enhanced monitoring and warning systems, as well as tougher air quality standards are essential.