On November 5, the Climat Café hosted by the Panum Institute of Copenhagen dealt with « health and climate change: food and airbourne effects in the European region ». During a very interesting debate, the audience could learn more about this topic and ask their questions to the expert panel, composed of Francesca Racioppi (Acting Head of the Rome Office of the WHO European Center for Environment and Health), Steffen Loft (professor in Environmental Medicine and Head of the Department of Environmental Health, Institute of Public Health, Copenhagen) and Henrik C. Wegener (director of National Food Institute, DTU).
The first thing to admit is that climate change will happen. Francesca informed that in the WHO European office, they had been working on that topic for ten years. According to her, the health system will be the front line of the climate change : we have to be prepared. Henrik precisely said that “we can only prepare and prevent”.
First, as Francesca claimed, climate change will not really bring new diseases but will multiply the dangers we are facing, such as water and food safety, and increase their effects ; and those who will be the most affected are the most vulnerable. Henrik agreed with Francesca, saying that climate change won’t create new infections, but will make them move to different areas, where people are not used to them and so not well prepared to deal with them. He added that three out of four new infections come from animals. Yet, with climate change, animals will move, and they might bring diseases and so infect humans. Moreover, there are more diseases in the summertime, so if summers are longer, there will be more diseases. Steffen stated that, according to danish statistics, even small change in temperature has effects. Furthermore, with more rainfalls there will be more insects so people will use more pesticides – which pollute – to get rid of them, Henrik said. Steffen also mentioned that humidity is strongly involved in the development of allergies. Yet, with climate change, there will be more outdoor humidity, and more indoor humidity due to energy conservation, and therefore more allergies. Thus, better ventilation and maintenance are necessary.
Actually, the common problem in Francesca’s opinion is a “lack of awareness”: both the press and the public are not very aware of climate change effects on health. According to Steffen, the press covers climate change just like another environmental topic. For Henrik, the danish press is dealing with climate change just as expected from the press in general. They focus on the problem, talking about a “disaster scenario”, which probably reflects frustration in the general public about the apparent political inaction (they just talk), he said. They try to get the attention of the politicians, because we need someone to regulate, since we won’t change by ourself. Francesca admitted that this consciousness will however happen little by little and people have already started to realize, for instance with flood. The main problem is that the debate is currently dominated by economical considerations. Henrik said that there is a new way of addressing, related to climate change : all problems are now seen in that perspective, which offers new possibilities to raise funds. Indeed, as Francesca said, investments become more attractive when they deal with climate change.
The invited speakers insisted on the substantial role of the politicians, stating that political decisions were necessary, notably because, as Steffen said, he is not so optimistic about how people can change their habits. According to Henrik, we need to find an intelligent way to produce and to make sure we don’t waste too much energy. For example, there is large difference in the CO2 emissions from the production of different foods e.g. meats, cereals and vegetables. So the choice of diet can determine the impact in terms of CO2 production. Might organic food be better (in CO2 emissions) than industrialized food, asked a participant. In general yes, but probably not on all parameters ; transport and storage have for instance to be taken into account.
Francesca explained that one of the problems is that when ministries of health are confronted with the necessity to reduce budgets and expenses, they may be pressed to prioritize health care services over preventive and community ones. This may result in situations of stress, as "the health system will be the front line of the climate change. Nevertheless, governments have already started to work together to find solutions and set alarm systems, and their measures against climate change do have direct effects on health. For example, decreasing greenhouses gases emissions from the cars is good for health too, because then the air is better - since less polluted - and with less cars, there might be less accidents.
Finally, Henrik pointed out that it is difficult for scientists to talk about a non-observable problem, about something which does not really affect health at present. As Steffen mentioned, scientists detail, they go piece by piece so it takes a long time to demonstrate things. According to Henrik, they are sometimes seen as “alarmists” : if they try to make the politicians act, for the possibly bad effects of climate change.
Agreed by the speakers