4 Ways Climate Change Affects Your Health – and What You Can Do About It
Too many people write off climate change as a problem for future generations to worry about.
But when it comes to the quality of our health, climate change is a problem we all should worry about right now.
From insect-borne diseases to more powerful hurricanes to heat-related illnesses, the accelerating changes to Earth’s climate are creating health challenges that make it even more urgent to implement climate solutions.
The Planet Is Heating Up, Fast
The scientific literature leaves no doubt that human-caused pollution is rapidly heating the planet.
Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other gasses released as a byproduct of human activities are getting trapped in the atmosphere, which is creating a warmer planet. The decade from 2009 to 2019 was the hottest on record, and 2020 was the hottest single year since records have been kept. Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising.
Limiting global temperature increase to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) would avert the most catastrophic environmental consequences of global warming, provided greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced by 2030.
Every increase in global temperatures below that level, however modest, will exacerbate the existing impacts on human health, especially for those in certain age, income and demographic categories.
Here are four key ways that global warming already is affecting our health:
Extreme heat kills more people every year than hurricanes, tornados, wildfires and floods combined. Florida’s average temperature has risen by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past century due to climate change, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates.
Heat waves are becoming more frequent and more intense. Already this summer, Florida has experienced record-setting heat, with temperatures commonly in the mid-90s when it’s normally in the low 90s. High temperatures combined with high humidity create dangerous heat indices. For example, a 92-degree day with 60% humidity creates a heat index of 105 degrees, when everyone is at risk of cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, a medical emergency that must be quickly treated.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, extreme heat days are expected to go up dramatically in most areas of the country within the next 15 years, and even more so if we do not start limiting our greenhouse gas emissions.
Hotter days are particularly dangerous if you have a chronic condition like heart disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity or obstructive pulmonary disease. The same is true for older people, who have made up the majority of deaths in recent heat waves in the U.S.
Diseases carried by mosquitoes and ticks already are on the rise. With mosquitoes, it’s diseases like zika and chikungunya in Florida, and malaria in other parts of the world. With ticks, the disease risks are ehrlichiosis, Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
One of the reasons these diseases are increasing is because their hosts thrive in hotter climates. As colder areas warm, they become a more favorable environment for mosquitoes and ticks.
Plus, one of the impacts of climate change are changes in the way water is distributed. For example, flooding inundates areas with water, creating conditions favorable to disease-carrying mosquitos. We’re seeing intense wet-weather events like “rain bombs” that dump vast amounts of water in brief periods of time, as well as wetter, more intense tropical systems.
Stronger, Longer-Lasting Hurricanes
Hurricanes are getting more dangerous because of climate change. The key reason isn’t a mystery: Tropical systems gain strength from warm water, and the warmer the water, the wetter and stronger hurricanes become.
Oceans are absorbing more than 90% of the heat being generated by human-caused global warming, and scientists say the average ocean temperature has risen by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the industrial era began.
The result across the globe are tropical cyclones that are more intense, more destructive and longer lasting, which makes them more likely to pose a danger to the health and safety of those in their path.
Hurricane Dorian in 2019 is a prime example. Fueled by warm Atlantic waters, the storm rapidly intensified into a Category 5 hurricane. It then stalled over the Bahamas for two days while remaining a Category 5 for most of that time, pulverizing homes, dumping more than 20 inches of rain in some places, creating storm surges that covered entire islands and killing at least 74 people.
There’s a growing consensus that stalled-out storms like Dorian and Hurricane Harvey — the 2017 storm that parked over Texas for four days and produced more than 60 inches of rain — are related to climate change. The belief is that wind currents that steer hurricanes are losing strength because the temperature contrast between the Arctic and the equator is diminishing.
Hurricanes pose a host of health risks, from lack of electricity to run home medical equipment, increased deaths from extreme heat due to lack of air conditioning during power loss, injuries from trying to make home repairs and lack of access to health care.
We continue to release vast amounts of pollutants into the air that create health risks.
All fossil fuels pollute the air, whether it’s coal, oil or methane (sometimes referred to as “natural” gas). The byproducts of these fuels include carbon dioxide, methane and other pollutants that can cause and worsen asthma, COPD, heart failure and lung cancer. Air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels kills an estimated 200,000 people each year in the United States, making it the fourth-highest cause of death in the U.S and globally.
Nitrous oxide, for example, is the primary culprit in ground level ozone, which on hot summer days can be devastating for people with respiratory problems. Wildfires exacerbated by climate change release particulate matter that contribute to an estimated 339,000 deaths each year globally.
It’s also important to recognize that as concentrations of carbon dioxide rise outdoors, they also rise inside our homes and workplaces, which can affect our cognitive function. Gas stoves leak small amounts even when they’re turned off, which can increase nitrous oxide levels and make it more likely children living in a home with a gas stove will develop asthma.
What Can You Do?
Climate change is a worldwide issue, but you're not helpless. Everyone can do their part to stay healthy, including:
- Recognize whether you or someone you know is at a greater risk of health-related effects of heat and air pollution, particularly children, older adults and people in low-income communities. Talk about climate change and health with your friends and loved ones.
- Talk to your medical provider about how climate change might be affecting your health and your response to medications.
- Pay attention to air pollution reports and take steps to protect yourself when air quality isn’t healthy by staying indoors as much as possible.
- Understand what high temperatures do to your body, learn to recognize signs of heat stress and stay adequately hydrated to avoid kidney injury. Ask your landlord, HOA, or local government what resources are available to you in the event of an extreme heat wave.
- Try to eat more plant-based foods. Avoiding sugar and cutting down on red meat are good for the environment and good for you. Decreasing food waste is also a huge benefit to the planet -- and your wallet.
- Use insect repellent to avoid diseases carried by mosquitoes and ticks, especially during disease outbreaks.
- Promote the use of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, such as by purchasing solar panels or an electric car if you're able. Other examples could be swapping incandescent for LED light bulbs or changing your gas stove for an electric one.
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