CIESIN Thematic Guides

Mortality Research Needs and Programs

Many unresolved questions surround the issue of future mortality due to global warming. The large body of literature that addresses the basic mechanisms underlying how global warming may affect health is limited primarily to temperature increases. In terms of health effects, most studies focus exclusively on mortality, even though the relationship between global warming and morbidity may be stronger and more significant. Those researchers who have considered how individual attributes may influence the effects on health disagree on the role that age, race, and gender play. Although the extent of exposure to climate changes will depend upon the location of populations, at this point climatic change models cannot predict local or regional effects. The degree to which acclimation and societal intervention may modify the effects of global warming on health has not been adequately addressed. Finally, there is no in-depth analysis of the economic cost of potential health effects or of proposed interventions. Extensive research and collaboration will be required to address these and other aspects of the effect of global warming on mortality.

White and Hertz-Picciotto (1985) summarize specific data and research needs related to climate, medical investigations, and social interventions in the section "Human Health" of the Department of Energy's report Characterization of Information Requirements for Studies of CO2 Effects. The table "Knowns and Uncertainties Regarding Principal Climate Effects on Human Health" is particularly enlightening.

In "Global Change," Last (1993) emphasizes the need for surveillance of heat-related illnesses and suggests a mechanism similar to that used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for influenza outbreaks. He also describes several ongoing national and international responses to global change.

In "Climate Change and Public Health," Kalkstein (1990) describes the Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Change Division's global warming-human health initiative, which focuses on the social, cultural, and demographic changes that could occur due to global warming and its effects on the biosphere. The division will place some emphasis on developing a better understanding of how populations will acclimate to warmer conditions.

In "Global Health Watch," their contribution to The Lancet series on global warming, Haines, Epstein, and McMichael (1993) suggest the possibility of the World Health Organization coordinating a "Global Health Watch," whereby populations in regions most likely to be impacted would be monitored. Information on health and climate change would then be integrated with other related data to provide a broad picture of global health status.