Is there a Climate Change-Diabetes Nexus?

(COP 19, Warsaw, Poland) – Everyone sees the effect of climate change on the environment in the form of rising sea levels, droughts, floods, tsunamis, typhoons, and extreme temperatures.  As if those were not scary or devastating enough, there is one aspect of climate change that many have not considered: your personal health.

“We concluded that millions of people will be affected due to direct and indirect effects” of climate change,  Dr. Bettine Menne of the World Health Organization tells UN Dispatch. The more obvious ‘direct’ affects include droughts and floods that lead to changing agriculture and food availability, which lead to malnutrition and famine.  Then there are deaths caused by natural disasters like we’ve seen most recently with Super Typhoon Haiyan.

Extreme temperatures, especially heat waves, provide a startling statistic.  Menne explains the WHO has found that “with a 1 degree increase in temperature [we see] a 5-10% increase of diarrheal diseases depending on the place in the world and the baseline health conditions you have.”  While a significant portion of the 760,000 diarrheal disease deaths of children under the age of five could have been prevented by clean drinking water – or access to an adequate amount of water at all – we see that the environment plays a larger role in our mortality than many have been previously considered.

The WHO’s International Agency for Cancer Research recently declared air pollution from cars, trucks, and factories as another source of cancer, particularly of the lung.  Menne explains to us that “we know the pollutants causing air pollution are quite the same as those causing climate change.”  You don’t have to be a smoker, just live in certain cities in China, and your risk of lung cancer increases dramatically.

These are just the direct effects of climate change and environmental degradation. There is still the underlying problem of the indirect effects.  To wit, the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) says there are “366 million people with diabetes worldwide, a figure which will rise to 552 million by 2030.”  In general, it has been attributed to a combination of genetics and lack of diet and exercise. The IDF says climate change is now another contributing factor in the disease that causes to the 4 million deaths a year.

The group identifies a number of pathways between the climate, the environment and incidence of diabetes. Their study points to rapid urbanization as one of the main catalysts, especially in the developing world where cities are growing at breakneck speed, often in an unplanned fashion. Urban life is dominated by sedentary occupations and by “high levels of mechanized transportation, inactive occupations and insufficient physical activity,” all of which can lead to an unhealthy diet and obesity, a leading cause of Type 2 diabetes.

Though, Micronesia, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and Tuvalu, are not exactly known for their urban centers they still have some of the highest prevalence of diabetes.  IDF says that another major indirect cause of diabetes are the climate change effects of the entire global food system.  The study notes that our system “does not encourage sustainable agriculture or healthy diets, and is unsustainable in its present form.”  This makes sense when we can see that agricultural food production, especially livestock, contributes 10-12% of global emissions of greenhouse gasses.

Short of living in a bubble or breathing through gas masks, there are ways to improve this via smart policies calling for sustainable agriculture practices, reduction of emissions, and more public transportation.  The question really is, will politics get in the way of not just climate change action, but now also our personal health?