When heads of state and other leaders of 195 nations reached a landmark accord at the recent United Nations COP21 conference on climate change in Paris, they focused primarily on sea level rise, droughts, loss of biodiversity, and ways to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in order to reduce these consequences. But arguably the most serious and widespread impacts of climate change are those that are hazardous to the health of people.
Climate change is already posing a variety of human health risks. It is increasing heat-related illness and death, not only among older people with underlying chronic diseases, but also among otherwise healthy workers exposed to extreme heat. The frequency and intensity of heat waves is expected to increase dramatically by 2050. Vector-borne infectious diseases, such as malaria carried by mosquitoes, are highly influenced by climate variability; with global warming, some of these diseases are spreading to areas where they have not previously been endemic. Water-borne infectious diseases may increase when torrential rainfall events are accompanied by flooding and resultant sewage contamination of water supplies. Rising temperatures increase ozone pollution, which exacerbates chronic respiratory disease, and increase pollen and other airborne allergens, which exacerbates chronic allergic disorders.
Climate change results in more droughts in some areas and more flooding in others, all of which threatens crop yields and food security and ultimately leads to increased rates of malnutrition. By creating scarcity of food, safe water, and other necessities, climate change can lead to political and social instability and, in turn, collective violence.
Climate change is raising sea levels, forcing more and more people to migrate, especially those in low-lying coastal areas in countries like Bangladesh and in island nations like Vanuatu; by 2050, there could be tens of millions of “climate refugees,” whose health is threatened in multiple ways. Increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, will also lead to displacement of people as well as injury, illness, and death. And, as a result of all these problems, rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders will increase.
Not everyone is equally affected by health problems caused by climate change. These problems disproportionately affect people in low-income countries as well as poor people in the United States, European nations, and other high-income countries. The United States and China together account for approximately 40% of greenhouse gas emissions globally; however, low-income countries that emit the smallest amounts tend to have the highest rates of “climate-sensitive diseases,” such as malnutrition and malaria. Climate change is a risk multiplier, making populations already at high risk of illness and death to suffer even more.
Physicians, nurses, public health workers, and other health professionals need to increase their understanding of the health impacts of climate change. They need to play important roles in responding to climate change by supporting measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and measures to help the public adapt to and prepare for the effects of climate change. They need to raise awareness by the public and policymakers of the serious health impacts of climate change, and team up with people in other sectors to plan and support policies and programs to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.
Many policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions offer large “co-benefits” for human health. For example, promoting renewable sources of energy, like solar and wind power, not only reduces climate-disrupting emissions from burning fossil fuels, but also decreases air pollutants that cause respiratory and cardiovascular disorders. Promoting walking, bicycling, and other forms of “active transport” – and promoting urban environments designed for people, not motor vehicles – not only reduces reliance on transportation based on fossils fuels, but also improves physical fitness and reduces cardiovascular disease and cancer. Finally, promoting less meat consumption helps to conserve environmental resources while improving nutrition and health.
So, as you hear more about how climate change is adversely affecting the health of the planet, think about how it is also adversely affecting the health of people. And find opportunities to support adaptation and mitigation measures that will both address climate change and provide “co-benefits” for health.
Featured image credit: “Solar power” by lenulenac. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.