OPINION: What does climate change have to do with health?

1 January 2014

College of Nurses co-chair TAIMA CAMPBELL argues that climate change is a public health and nursing issue as much as an environmental issue. Read on to find out more.

Before considering the impact of climate change on health, we first need to agree that climate change exists. According to Columbia University climate scientist, Dr James Hansen, the scientific community has known that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere since the 1800s. He suggests that the right amount maintains a climate conducive to human life, but excess will inevitably cause an increase in temperature and climate change, resulting in more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as storms, floods, heatwaves, droughts, and rising sea levels. He argues this is not the result of natural variability, as some argue, but the result of fossil fuel emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agrees that warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s the oceans have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea levels have risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.

Climate change is more than an environmental issue. It is a public health concern recognised by medical and world health authorities alike. Potentially catastrophic consequences to human health are predicted in the coming decades where millions of people may be displaced from their homes by flooding, drought, or extreme weather events such as cyclones, storms or fires. Major threats to global health from climate change are also predicted due to changing patterns of infectious diseases, variations in rainfall, and the effects on crop yields and population growth. Some of these extremes have already been observed.

New Zealand is not immune. Over the coming decades, changes in rainfall, wind patterns, extreme events, and ocean chemistry are expected. It is likely to be wetter in the west and drier in the east and north. Heavier and more frequent extreme rainfalls are expected, along with more drought, more of the strongest winter winds, and more extra hot days. Sea-level rise is expected to continue, with an increase in the frequency of extreme high tides, and oceans surrounding New Zealand will continue to acidify. The New Zealand economy, which is heavily invested in climate-sensitive primary industries (as well as being a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions) will be influenced by global climate change and the socioeconomic consequences.

So if we agree that climate change exists and that it does have an impact on human health - what has this got to do with nursing? Nurses do, or at least should, recognise the impact of climate change on the socio-economic determinants of health; and the downstream health, environmental, and financial costs if we are not able to prioritise environmental sustainability. Even district health boards are starting to see that reducing their carbon footprint will have benefits for human health and improve efficiency in the health system. As the New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine statement on climate change points out “well-designed policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can bring about substantial health benefits” through low carbon transport (such as walking), plant-based diets (more fruit and vegetables), and energy efficiency (such as insulated homes); as well as preventing further degradation of the environment that our economy is dependent on.

As citizens, it’s prudent to note that there is no constitutional protection for the environment in New Zealand. There is no supreme law that protects our rights as citizens to a healthy environment. In fact, there is no formal constitution that enshrines what New Zealanders value and cherish above all else in this country. What we have is the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty where Parliament has the right to make or unmake any law and where the constraints upon Parliament are ultimately political, not legal.

As a democracy, we have the power to elect representatives into government, but lets not forget that as citizens we need to hold these representatives accountable for the decisions that they make and as health professionals we have a responsibility to advocate for environmentally sustainable policies that protect the health and wellbeing of the people in our communities, as well as our planet.


  • Dr James Hansen, formerly Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, where he directs a programme in Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions.
  • Hansen J, Johnson D, Lacis A, et al. Climate impact of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Science 1981;213(4511):957-66.
  • IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
  • McMichael AJ. Globalisation, climate change, and human health. N Engl J Med. 2013;368(14):1335-43. doi: 10.1056/NEJMra1109341. Costello A, Abbas M, Allen A, Ball S, Bell S, et al.;
  • Managing the health effects of climate change: Lancet and University College London Institute for Global Health Commission. Lancet.2009;373:1693-1733
  • Chan M. Climate change and health: preparing for unprecedented challenges. The 2007 David E. Barmes Global Health Lecture, Bethesda, Maryland, USA, 10 December 2007. (World Health Organization, Director-General speeches 2006-12.) (Managing">http://www.who.int/dg/speeches/2007/20071211_maryland/en/)
  • Managing the health effects of climate change: Lancet and University College London Institute for Global Health Commission. Lancet.2009; 373:1693-1733 at 1693

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