Health

While it is difficult to tie particular natural disasters to climate change, heat waves are the events scientists can most easily and robustly attribute to man-made changes in the atmosphere.

One of the most well-studied impacts of climate change is the effect of temperature and, in particular, extremely hot days on mortality. While it is difficult to tie particular natural disasters to climate change, heat waves are the events scientists can most easily and robustly attribute to man-made changes in the atmosphere. Statistical analyses and climate modeling indicate that the 2010 Russian heat wave, for example, was about five times more likely to have occurred in 2010 than it would have been in the 1960s (before much of the effects of climate change were felt). An analysis conducted after the 2003 European heat wave concluded that it was four times as likely as it would have been before the Industrial Revolution and that it was likely that the excess mortality attributed to the heat wave (~15,000 deaths in France alone) was caused by anthropogenic climate change. 

Historical estimates of the temperature-mortality relationship across societies can help shed light on whether and what type of resilience measures can mitigate the risk of heat-related mortality.

The level of vulnerability of populations to heat stress will depend on the severity of the temperature extremes, as well as on society’s adaptive response, all of which must be measured at a very local scale taking into account different incomes, climates, and levels of development. Historical estimates of the temperature-mortality relationship across societies can help shed light on whether and what type of resilience measures can mitigate the risk of heat-related mortality. For example, does economic development and the resulting penetration of air conditioning have the potential to reduce mortality risk? Studying the potential effects of future climate change can help the public health community assess where risks will be the most severe and mobilize resources in local communities to improve resilience.