While climate change advocacy efforts often rely on temperature trends and nature photography to communicate the stakes of the crisis, some have suggested there may be a more effective angle for spurring action: human health. Not only does Earth’s warming contribute to illness, the spread of disease, and mental duress, but a focus on global health risks could “better [tap] people’s values” to drive real change, according to the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
Yet as others have recognized, the health impacts of climate change are too urgent to wait for the narrative to change and catch hold. In fact, the American Medical Association adopted a policy in June 2019 to promote environmental education for medical students and practicing doctors so they may “counsel patients on how to protect themselves from the health risks posed by climate change.”
Both recommendations reflect the reality that human health is suffering as climate conditions worsen. The following areas represent five critical health impacts of climate change.
The United States Global Change Research Program found that annual average temperatures in the US are expected to increase between 3 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. As geographic regions heat up, extreme temperatures can overwhelm the body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature, leading to heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and hyperthermia.
Furthermore, hotter temperatures can contribute to cardiovascular, respiratory, renal, diabetes-related, and premature birth issues, with the young and old more vulnerable to these ill effects, according to the Global Change Research Program.
As warm seasons become longer and hotter, cold seasons become shorter and warmer. Meanwhile, wetter conditions offer ideal breeding grounds for disease-bearing insects such as mosquitoes and ticks. As a result, the American Public Health Association cautions that cases of Lyme Disease, malaria, Zika Virus, and West Nile Virus are poised to increase. More broadly, the World Health Organization (WHO) projects that 250,000 additional deaths will occur annually between 2030 and 2050 due to diseases and illnesses tied to climate change.
At the same time, worsening air quality from fossil fuel emissions is a significant contributor to stroke, heart disease, and lung cancer, according to the WHO, which notes that nine out of 10 people worldwide reside in areas where air pollution levels exceed the organization’s guideline limits.
3. Dangerous Weather Events
The WHO reports that natural disasters have more than tripled since the 1960s, providing abundant evidence for how severe weather events can be detrimental to community health.
For example, unreliable freshwater sources resulting from droughts or flooding can lead to water scarcity, famine, and water-borne diseases. Additionally, the Global Change Research Program notes that wildfires and severe seasonal storms can lead to traumatic injuries and even death, smoke inhalation, and power outage–related carbon monoxide poisoning, among other issues.
4. Food Insecurity
The world’s changing climate impacts growing conditions and seasons, destabilizing longstanding approaches to feeding the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explain that changes in rainfall, severe weather events, and the propagation of weeds and pests hinder crop growth as well as livestock and fish production. In effect, this leads to rising prices and disruptions in distribution.
Additionally, the United Nations sees dangerous impacts in:
- Steadily declining yields and production
- Limited accessibility and rising prices
- Deteriorating nutrient content
- Increasingly unreliable distribution networks
5. Mental Stress
The health impacts of climate change go beyond the physical. According to Yale University, 62% of Americans acknowledge being “somewhat” worried about global warming, and 23% are “very” worried. Additionally, Gallup found that 65% of survey participants personally worry at least a “fair amount” about climate change, and 42% thought the seriousness of global warming is generally underestimated.
Such sentiments are surfacing in interactions with mental health professionals, who refer to the condition as “climate distress,” “climate grief,” “climate anxiety,” or “eco-anxiety.” As a result, individuals may suffer from mental health issues ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder following an extreme weather event to an increased sense of helplessness, according to a report published by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, and ecoAmerica.
As the toll of climate change on mental health suggests, these five health impacts are so closely linked together that they may compound the harm done. But the linkages do not stop even there: these health factors are also bound to pressing issues like financial security, economic development, and social justice, the Stanford Social Innovation Review notes. This means that there is no one solution—but that improvements in one area may create positive effects elsewhere.