Faculty Fellows Discuss Public Health Impacts of Climate Change in India

A panel of experts discussed the public health impacts of climate change in India at a seminar hosted by the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future on April 6. The seminar was organized and moderated by Prof. Sucharita Gopal of the Department of Earth & Environment and featured Prof. Susan Foster of the School of Public Health and Prof. Bruce Anderson of the Department of Earth & Environment.

Prof. Foster began by providing an overview of the global public health impacts of climate change, particularly the decrease in food availability and increase in prices, as well as population displacement due to flooding and drought. She stressed the importance of recognizing the impact that climate change will have on poverty, noting that the World Bank projects an additional 100 million people living in poverty by 2030, mostly in Africa and south Asia. In response, the World Bank is pursuing “climate-smart development,” focusing on scaling up social protection, expanding universal health coverage, providing early warning systems, and developing climate-resistant crops. However, Prof. Foster identified several obstacles to achieving the World Bank’s strategy, especially stemming from the rising number of displaced people due to flooding.

From left: Pardee Center Director Anthony Janetos, Bruce Anderson, Sucharita Gopal, and Susan Foster

Prof. Gopal focused specifically on the public health challenges brought on by climate change in India, noting that many of the direct effects of climate change  such as increasing temperatures, heat waves, and natural disasters — accelerate or contribute to the transmission of diarrheal, vector-borne, and animal-associated diseases in India. Flooding, in particular, is contributing to increased risk of mosquito-borne diseases, such as dengue, malaria, and chikungunya, in some of the most densely populated regions of the country. She also explained the increasing threat posed by air pollution in India, which is home to 25-30 of the top 100 most polluted cities in the world. Air pollution is contributing to observed increases in asthma, eye irritation, and common respiratory ailments, in addition to increasing incidences of ischemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, lower respiratory infections, and cancers. 

Prof. Anderson presented a deep dive of his research on the impacts of climate change on heat-induced mortality in India. Using data collected from 58 weather stations across the country, he determined the longevity and frequency of heat waves over the past 35 years, showing an increasing trend of cumulative anomalous heat over that time period. Despite the fact that 2015 did not fall within with the five hottest years over that time span, it experienced the highest incidences of heat-induced mortality. Drawing on data from the Boreal Winter El Nino event of 1997/98, he concluded that (in part due to population growth and historic underreporting of heat-induced mortality) the deaths in 2016 can be expected to be approximately 5,000, roughly double the number experienced last year.

The seminar is part of ongoing research by Gopal, Anderson, and Foster — along with Prof. Les Kaufman — as Pardee Center Faculty Research Fellows. Their work explores the connections between climate change and human health impacts in India and Cambodia, and is intended to better inform policy discussions and decisions in public health and related fields.