NRDC and Indian Partners Launch Study on How Extreme Heat from Climate Change Impacts Our Health

People tend to think of climate change in terms of how it is altering the weather or how it is shaping the places we live. But climate change can also have a major impact on our health.

Scientists have already documented how climate change is intensifying respiratory conditions like asthma and broadening the spread of mosquitoes that carry disease. NRDC’s own experts released a report called Fever Pitch, which found that in 2009, Florida had its first locally transmitted infections of dengue fever in more than 40 years, and that mosquitoes capable of transmitting dengue are now in at least 28 states.

What scientists have not studied extensively is what intense heat brought by climate change will do to human health. In the 2000 study, “Climate Change and a Global City,” researchers looking at the eastern United States determined that the most direct health effect would be heat-induced mortality, especially among the elderly poor. Yet experts are still only beginning to understand the interplay between climate change, heat, and health, particularly in India.

NRDC is trying to help change that. While I was in India recently, I met with leading scientists at the Public Health Foundation of India. Together, we are planning one of the first studies in India of heat-related sickness and death caused by temperature variation associated with climate change.

There will be challenges to undertaking this study. There is not a lot of baseline data to draw from, because heat-related illnesses can present themselves in a variety of ways and because record keeping of contributing causes of death may not be very detailed.

But considering that India just had its hottest summer on record, and North India experienced an unusually severe winter season, it is critical that we get a better understanding of how increasing heat could influence people’s health.  

Our study will be led by Dr. Rao Aiyagari, Dr. Archna Singh and Puja Thakker at the Public Health Foundation of India, with overall guidance from Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, the president of foundation and until recently the head of the Department of Cardiology at All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Dr Reddy is a thought leader in global public health and epidemiology, and along with certain sections of the Indian government, he has identified climate change as a risk to human health in India.

At NRDC, the study will be led by Dr. Kim Knowlton, Senior Scientist on NRDC’s Global Warming and Health Project, with assistance from Anjali Jaiswal and Avinash Kar. NRDC has previously prepared a vulnerability assessment and adaptation strategy for California, which will provide helpful lessons, and our team has been closely studying and evolving frameworks for protecting community health in a warmer world.

The more we understand the interplay between climate change, intense heat, and human health, the better we can prepare for it. Adaptation measures such as architecture that keeps heat outside, water cooling stations, and early warning systems can help people protect themselves from some of the dangers of rising heat.

It is sobering to discuss heat waves in India, knowing it already routinely reaches 120 degrees in the Delhi and other cities. It is even more sobering to know that the change in weather patterns is fueled in a large part by pollution from the United States.

Even as NRDC undertakes this new study of heat-related health impacts, we will not let up on our fight to push the United States to reduce its carbon pollution.