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Climate change threatens health of New Zealanders

Thursday 26 October 2017

Climate change threatens health of New Zealanders in varied ways

Many factors that contribute to the health of New Zealanders will be affected by climate change, finds a new report by Royal Society Te Apārangi.

Direct effects of climate change such as increased exposure to heat waves and weather events, including flooding and fires, will affect our health but there will also be indirect effects, such as reduced water safety or challenges to our mental health, says Royal Society Te Apārangi President Professor Richard Bedford.

“We can reduce these risks by taking action to reduce climate change. Further if we know what the risks are, we can prepare for them and reduce negative outcomes.

“If we think of the basic building blocks of health, such as our shelter, the air we breathe, water we drink and the food we eat, all will be affected by climate change.

“We can expect more particulates and pollen causing increased respiratory problems like asthma, contamination of drinking water supplies and increased toxic algal blooms, as well as increased food spoilage or crop failures, which may reduce food safety and affordability.

“Then there is the social and mental disruption that could come from the breakdown of communities if people need to relocate and also the toll that repeated stresses can have on our mental health.

“Hotter days can lead to higher rates of aggression and there is also research that shows that rates of heart attacks and strokes can increase as temperatures rise.

“Another public health risk is an increase in infectious disease if disease carriers can spread and better survive in New Zealand with a changing climate.”

The report, Human Health Impacts of Climate Change for New Zealand, is the third in the series produced by Royal Society Te Apārangi looking at climate change from New Zealand’s perspective. The first report Implications of Climate Change for New Zealand summarised the findings of what changes we can expect and the second Transition to a Low-carbon Economy for New Zealand looked at the options for mitigating climate change through reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases.

Professor Alistair Woodward, epidemiologist and biostatistician at University of Auckland, who contributed to the latest report on health, says one of the changes that is going to impact heavily on our health is an increase in droughts.

“There’s going to be a reduction in rain, particularly on the eastern side of the country (and more rain on the west), but the increase in drought frequency is going to put a lot of pressure on our rural economy. We know that there is a relationship between the rural economy, the welfare of the people working in the rural economy, and the frequency of mental health problems.

All kinds of health issues are related to communities under stress and that’s something we’ve got to anticipate and prepare for.”

The report finds that climate change will likely exacerbate existing socioeconomic and ethnic health inequalities.

“We don’t think that climate change will affect everybody equally or evenly. You can think of it a bit as a threat multiplier. Climate change is going to make life harder for people who are already suffering a bit.”

“But, the sooner New Zealand and the global community acts to reduce climate change, the less risk there is of us experiencing these negative effects on our health.”

Find a copy of the report and other resources at Royalsociety.org.nz/climate-change-health

ends

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