Higher temperatures. More extreme weather events. These are some of the expected impacts of climate change. Along with these changes, we will see wide-ranging and mostly negative consequences for human health. Climate change has been linked to many public health problems—everything from increased waterborne diseases due to warmer waters and more flooding — to a rise in asthma cases. In a recent podcast on Climate Change’s Effect on Public Health, the World Health Organization (WHO) says climate change is the defining public health threat of the 21st century and estimates that 150,000 people die annually due to climate change. The San Francisco Department of Public Health, City and County of San Francisco created the diagram above that illustrates the health impact of climate change.
The George Mason Program on Climate and Health, in partnership with the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI), recently released a report titled Views of Allergy Specialists on the Health Effects of Climate Change. According to this report, the large majority of AAAAI members report that their patients are experiencing a wide range of health effects from climate change.
The most common health effects that participants noted among their own patients were air pollution-related increases in severity of chronic disease (73%), increased allergic symptoms (63%) and injuries due to severe weather (49%). Other conditions identified as climate related health problems affecting their own patients were heat related effects (34%), vector borne infections (36%) and diarrhea from food/waterborne infections (23%). Across all the categories of health effects, more physicians thought their patients would experience harms in the next 10-20 years than physicians who are observing current harms.
According to Linda Rudolph, MD, MPH, Co-Director of the Climate Change and Public Health Project, Center for Climate Change and Health, climate change presents the following health impacts:
- Extreme weather injuries, drownings, fatalities
- Heat-related illnesses and deaths
- Air pollution impacts – respiratory, cardiovascular
- Allergic disease (increased dust and pollen)
- Infectious disease
- Water and food-borne disease
- Vector-borne disease
- Food insecurity and malnutrition
- Water insecurity
- Displacement, conflict, and migration
- Stress and mental health impacts
The Good News
The good news is that many of the actions necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change have significant and immediate co-benefits for human well-being. With COP21 setting the stage for action, the health care and educational sectors can play a major role in helping to cut carbon emissions from the four core sources: energy, transportation, land use and agriculture.
For example, on the path to carbon neutrality, there are co-benefits that come along with the transition to clean energy and energy efficiency. Reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) reduces air pollution as well as reducing asthma, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and adverse birth outcomes. As UC works to increase its purchase of local, sustainable food, it not only reduces GHG emissions, but increases access to affordable healthy food and reduces a range of health issues, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer (breast, prostate, colorectal), type II diabetes, antibiotic resistance, and pesticide illness. On the transportation front, making walking and biking easier offers a range of health benefits, including a reduced disease burden for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, dementia, breast cancer, and colon cancer.
Health Sector Plays a Vital Role
The health sector can play a vital role in moving us toward a more sustainable future. Here are five practical actions that you can take today:
1. Join the The U.S. Climate and Health Alliance, a national network of health and public health practitioners dedicated to addressing the threats of climate change to health.
2. Join the email list for the Center for Climate Change and Health.
3. Read the Pubic Health Institute’s (PHI) new report: Climate Change, Health, and Equity: Opportunities for Action. This report explores the many ways in which climate change, health, and equity are connected. With input from more than a hundred public health professionals, community health, equity, and environmental justice advocates and support from The Kresge Foundation, this report presents a conceptual framework to help demonstrate how these issues are linked, and to identify opportunities and recommendations for action.
4. Integrate climate change reduction and resilience explicitly into health programs, policies and practice.
5. Get engaged by talking to your colleagues, communities and decision makers.
- Podcast on Climate Change’s Effect on Public Health
- Center for Climate Change and Health
- Climate Change, Health, and Equity: Opportunities for Action