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Hot air, human health closely tied

It seems that polar bears and penguins are not the only victims of global warming. As climate talks wrap up in Bali, we heard from the World Health Organization that rising temperatures are also making humans less healthy as malaria spreads northward and heatwaves become more common.

The WHO is using such claims to justify stinging cuts in carbon emissions in order to stabilize global temperatures. But if the aim is actually to improve health — particularly in poor countries — they would be hard pushed to get it more wrong.

The relationship between climate and disease is less marked than is often claimed. On Monday, Margaret Chan, the head of WHO stated that rising temperatures could lead to the re-emergence of malaria in the U.S. But this fails to take into account the vast range of human and ecological factors that determine the incidence of this disease.

According to Professor Paul Reiter, an expert on vector-borne diseases and former contributor to the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "there is no evidence that climate has played any role in the burgeoning tragedy of this disease." Reiter points out that malaria was endemic throughout northern Europe until the second half of the 19th century, when changes in agricultural practices, improved drainage and better human dwellings led to a spontaneous decline of the disease, as mosquitoes had fewer opportunities to bite people — even while records show temperatures rose in this period.

Effective control policies involving the use of pesticides like DDT saw the near-eradication of malaria in tropical countries such as Sri Lanka but, as health authorities have taken their eye off the ball, it has re-emerged. Either way, it is unclear how cutting carbon emissions in the hope of stabilizing temperatures would have any impact on the potential range of the disease.

Climate alarmists, including the WHO, have also claimed that global warming will lead to more deaths from heatwaves but perspective is also needed here. Professor Bill Keatinge, an expert on the effects of temperature on human physiology, has shown that deaths do increase in the first few days of a heatwave, but most of these are very sick people who were likely to die shortly anyway. Mortality actually decreases during the later stages of heatwave. Moreover, humans have developed a range of ways coping with high temperatures, from siestas to air conditioning.

In fact, cold weather is far more harmful to human health than hot weather, because of the increased risk of respiratory infections, heart attacks and strokes. A country like Britain has only 1,000 heat-related deaths every year, compared to 40,000 cold-related. So it may be that the benefits of rising global temperatures will far outweigh the costs.

Moreover, the cost of cutting greenhouse gas emissions would have drastic implications for human health. According to calculations by UK consultancy Lombard Street Research, a new treaty that would stabilize the climate at today's temperatures would cost a total of US$20 trillion — or 45 percent of the world's current annual economic output. This is where possible policies to deal with a changing climate could have a very real — and nasty — effect on health, particularly in the poorest countries.

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