How climate change has impacted on human history

6 February 2017

There's more at stake here than Tony imagined when he started the book.

World-renowned public health researcher and distinguished Professor at ANU Tony McMichael, has posthumously published the most comprehensive look at the impact of climate change on human health and history.

The research will be launched on Tuesday 7 February in a book titled Climate Change and the Health of Nations, which joins the dots to explain how major climate changes affected major events in human history.

Professor McMichael died in late 2014 after completing the first draft. The book was completed by Dr Cameron Muir of the ANU and Professor Alistair Woodward of the University of Auckland.

Professor Woodward said Tony McMichael would leave a substantial legacy in climate change research.

"He will be seen as the first person to recognise the link between climate change and human health," Professor Woodward said.

"Tony's work is now more important than ever, at a time when a new President of the United States is saying that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese to advance their economy.

"There's more at stake here than Tony imagined when he started the book."

The book describes how climatic changes promoted the outbreak of the bubonic plague in the Late Middle Ages, killing one third of the population.

The book suggests deteriorating climate conditions were a major factor in the fall of the Roman Empire. Cooling in around 400 AD impacted agriculture making it difficult for the Romans to feed their army. The resulting disorder, mass migration and widespread hunger also paved the way for a range of new infections that were introduced into the Mediterranean.

The Mayan civilization was also affected by climate, as severe drought brought food shortages and conflicts.

Professor McMichael's partner, Dr Judith Healy, played a leading role in bringing the book to fruition.

"This is a culmination of his 20 years of work," Dr Healy said.

"I'm thrilled and relieved that we've been able to complete the book as Tony would have liked.

"Tony dedicated this book to the grandchildren of our world. He was alarmed and appalled that, if we humans continue on an over 2 degree global warming trajectory, we will bequeath a despoiled Planet Earth to future generations with consequent grave threats to their health and survival."

For more than 40 years, Professor McMichael was a champion of environmental health and became a world authority on the impact of climate change on human health.

The former director of the ANU National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health (NCEPH) was also instrumental in alerting the world to the dangers of passive smoking as well as the health impact of lead pollution, leading to a ban on lead in petrol in more than 100 countries.

His work advised the World Health Organization and the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).