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Impact of Climate Change
updated: Dec 14, 2011, 1:45 PM
When considering the health consequences of climate change, most people imagine
prolonged periods of extremely high temperatures and the associated physical
outcomes - including mortality. However, according to research conducted by
Olivier Deschênes, associate professor of economics at UC Santa Barbara, the
effects of climate change on physical health - and related economics - is much
broader than that. Deschênes' findings appeared in a recent issue of the
American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.
In his article "Climate Change, Mortality, and Adaptation: Evidence from Annual
Fluctuations in Weather in the U.S.," co-written with Michael Greenstone of
M.I.T., Deschênes estimates the economic impacts of climate change on human
health, and on expenditures for self-protection, such as air conditioning.
"I wanted to do a large-scale study of the entire continental United States, not
just a handful of cities," Deschênes said of his current research. "Too many
observations about climate change and its impacts are based on isolated, extreme
events, such as the 2003 heat wave in France. Second, I wanted to consider how
households might adapt to extreme weather by using more energy to control their
indoor climate. Third, I wanted to make predictions about future impacts that
were based on state-of the-art climate models."
Exposure to both extreme cold and extreme heat lead to increases in mortality,
according to Deschênes, because such exposure stresses the cardiovascular
system, which is a primary mechanism for the body to control its core
temperature. This suggests that rising temperatures will lead to a decrease in
the number of cold-related deaths, and an increase in those related to heat.
"Some geographical areas in the United States and elsewhere in the world may, in
fact, be healthier as a result of climate change," he said. "As in many of
life's circumstances, there will be 'winners' and 'losers' as a result of
climate change, at least when we evaluate its impact on human health."
In his recent study of the United States, Deschênes predicts a net increase in
mortality of about 2 percent by the end of the century. In other words, the
reduction in cold-related mortality is not sufficient to compensate for the
larger increase in heat-related mortality. "The second key point is the
importance of adaptation, or actions that individuals can take to mitigate the
effects of temperature change," he said. "Certain adaptations are available to
most of the western world, like access to air conditioning, either at home or in
public places. Nevertheless, my research shows that in the United States,
adaptation helps reduce the mortality impact of exposure to extreme heat."
As technologies and infrastructures improve around the world, he noted, options
for adapting to and mitigating the effects of rising temperatures and changing
climate will become available to many more people. "A key aspect of the future
debates on the global health implication of climate change is the extent to
which availability of these adaptation technologies becomes part of the overall
development policy," Deschênes said.
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