Thursday, December 01, 2005

National Academies weighs up the evidence on climate change

The National Academies has issued a report summarizing the findings of its various investigations into the effects of global climate change.

Entitled ‘Understanding and responding to climate change’ it was released in advance of a meeting of world leaders which opens November 28 in Montreal. That meeting is the first United Nations conference dealing with climate since the Kyoto agreement came into force in February.

The report analyzes its member institutions’ efforts in trying to achieve a consensus on the science, examine new avenues of enquiry and identify the critical needs in the observational and computational infrastructure. The report also highlights the opportunities to use this knowledge to produce more effective responses to these environmental challenges, the Academies explain.

Although the report acknowledges the current gaps in knowledge about the extent and mechanisms of climate change, it warns against using this as an excuse for inaction. “How climate will change in the future is inherently uncertain but far from unknown. If scientific uncertainty about climate change is used to delay action the risks and costs of the adverse effects of climate change could increase significantly.”

The National Academies also draws attention to the growing evidence on the direct impact of changing climate on human health. It notes a recent World Health Organization report, which estimated that climate changes over the past 30 years might have contributed to more than 150,000 deaths and 5 million illnesses annually. This has been the result of warmer temperatures and heavy rain that can create the conditions for the spread of the agents responsible for conditions like malaria. In South Asia, for example, a serious outbreak of another insect-borne disease, dengue fever, has infected 12,000 people and killed at least 1,000 this year.

Environmental change may also have an impact on public health within the US. Several groups have found an association between rising temperatures and deaths stemming from air pollution, including a study by staff at Columbia University examining smog-related deaths in New York City.


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