Roberto Bertollini warns of global health impacts of climate change

Dr. Bertollini, of the World Health Organization, says that the biggest health impacts are to people in developing countries, but people worldwide face some risk to their health from climate change.

Roberto Bertollini: There are a range of impacts that can justify many of the actions that are going to be taken for climate change. I think the health arguments are not used enough.

EarthSky spoke with Roberto Bertollini, M.D., of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Dr. Bertollini heads efforts by the WHO to protect human health from the impacts of climate change.

Roberto Bertollini: We have made an analysis that in the year 2000, because of weather-related events associated to the initial climate change, there are already 150,000 additional deaths due to a small number of diseases we studied that could be attributable to climate change. We have estimated that this is probably going to be close to double in the last five years, and we expect further increase for the 2010-2020.

According to the WHO, climate change intensifies floods and droughts. Floods can contaminate water and cause fatal illnesses, such as diarrhea and cholera. And prolonged droughts can cause food shortages.

Roberto Bertollini: In addition to that, we have the problem of air pollution, the problem of heat waves. These things are also happening now.

Dr. Bertollini said the biggest health impacts are to people in developing countries, but people worldwide face some risk to their health from climate change.

Roberto Bertollini: I think this is really an issue of life and survival of human beings.

Dr. Bertollini spoke more about how climate change impacts human health.

Roberto Bertollini: There is not one single most important impact, because there are different impacts in different countries. For instance, in countries of the western world at the moment, there are acute events, heat waves, have been the most important impact. But maybe also the air pollution is an important impact. In developing countries, the most important impact is probably diarrhea, or vector borne diseases.

At the Copenhagen climate summit, EarthSky asked Dr. Bertollini what he thought was the most important thing people should know about climate change and human health.

Roberto Bertollini: I think this is really an issue of life and survival of the human beings. I sometimes have the feeling that people think that more or less eventually the situation will adjust, we’ll have a different situation. This is not a joke. It’s a very serious business. It’s the health and the well being of the people at stake. It’s the survival of certain populations at stake.

Jorge Salazar