Humans breathe air provided by Earth, drink water provided by Earth, and eat food provided by Earth — so if the planet deteriorates, people get sick.
That’s the radically simple point a coalition of medical professionals are making in an effort to get people to take climate change seriously.
Climate change is harming the planet in significant ways, but the issue is normally understood in large-scale atmospheric terms that feel abstract in their seeming distance from everyday life.
But talking about how climate change directly impacts people’s health and their day-to-day lives can be powerful.
The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, a group of several high-profile medical professional groups with thousands of members, went public in March after years of mounting concerns that the health effects of climate change were being overlooked.
“There was an increasing realization that physicians across the country were seeing similar impacts from climate change in their medical practices and on the basis of that, we brought them together,” Mona Sarfaty, program director of the consortium, told Global CItizen.
“We wanted to alert the public that climate change is posing a risk to the health of every American,” she said. “People trust their physicians to look out for their health and doctors feel a responsibility to let their patients know what they’re seeing.”
Just as physicians advise their patients to avoid smoking, drinking, and unhealthy eating habits, they’re beginning to warn them about the excesses of climate change.
“Most people have not thought that climate change was going to affect them personally," Sarfaty said. ”They see it as something that affects polar bears and glaciers and people in faraway places ... so we would like to make people aware that climate change is about us, about all of us.”
“We think that the ultimate danger of climate change is the threat to the health of all of us,” she said.
But what are the potential health consequences of climate change?
It turns out there are a lot of them. In fact, almost all the environmental changes driven by climate change can be tied to a health problem.
Water and food contamination
Many parts of the world are experiencing extreme precipitation and flooding that overwhelm soil and infrastructure, causing fertilizer and pesticides from agriculture and contaminants from sewage systems to seep into lakes, streams, reservoirs, and other waterways.
When people drink or use this water, they are much more likely to get sick.
Illness from contaminated water is one of the leading causes of sickness around the world. In areas without modern water and sanitation systems, this risk is particularly urgent. But this is a rising problem in places that were previously shielded from contaminated water.
For example, an extremely wet year in 2013 across the Midwestern US caused mercury, livestock hormones, and pesticides to appear in higher quantities in water sources.
This also eventually ended up affecting aquatic life, which is facing its onslaught of health problems from climate change.
These contaminants also get into food supplies as runoff seeps into farmland and settles on crops, potentially causing sickness when they people eat them.
On the flipside, many parts of the world are experiencing severe droughts. Not only does this devastate agriculture, leading to damaged food supplies, but the ensuing dryness that sweeps across the land releases dust and other particles to blow into the air at higher rates.
The particle-filled air can cause bacterial and viral infections, exacerbate asthma, and cause long-term lung and heart conditions.
“If you do have a lung condition, you need to know what the air quality is,” Sarfaty said.
Forest fires are becoming more common throughout the world as areas dry out and temperatures increase. These fires fill the air with smog and harmful particles that affect air quality for hundreds of miles.
Just like with droughts, forest fires are making it harder for people to breathe.
“If you go outside, plan to exercise, if you’re a pregnant woman, a child who runs outside a lot, you need to know that these increased particle counts in the air can affect you,” she said.
The increased light and heat entering the Earth’s atmosphere from climate change are also causing pollutants to turn into ozone at higher rates. Ozone is an extremely dangerous substance when it appears at higher-than-normal levels.
As the world gets hotter, people are at greater risk of heat stroke, dehydration, and skin cancer, if it leads to more people spending time outdoors.
A major heatwave in India in 2015, for example, killed more than 1,400 people.
As warm seasons are extended around the world, the life cycles of pests like ticks and mosquitos are also extended.
The prevalence of Lyme's disease is booming across the Northeastern US and mosquito-borne illnesses are becoming increasingly global in nature as conditions become balmier everywhere. Many scientists also believe that the spread of the Zika virus was accelerated by climate change.
Climate change is often discussed in dire terms — the ice caps are all melting, animals and plants are dying off at alarming rates, countries are woefully unprepared, and so on.
Then there are the lived experiences of climate change — people being forced to relocate because land becomes uninhabitable or fires or storms destroy their homes, and people contracting illnesses indirectly from climate change.
All these stressors can exacerbate mental health conditions.
The consortium is not a political lobbying organization, so they’re not calling on politicians to act — its goal is to educate people. But there could be a downstream effect on politics. If doctors begin to talk about climate change to their patients and help to reframe the issue, it could make it less political.
And as people recognize the many health risks that climate change causes, this physician-led advocacy could spur stronger regulations.
After all, smoking was once highly politicized. So was the use of lead in products. Political action against both phenomenon seemed unlikely until the medical community stepped in and clearly outlined the health risks.
While climate change is of a fundamentally different nature — it causes massive atmospheric, oceanic, and geologic changes — it could follow a similar script.
Once people start seeing it as a direct threat to their health, they might want politicians to act more aggressively.
“People try to put concerns about climate change into a political box or into an environmental box,” Sarfaty said. “That’s not the way we see it.”
“It’s not some abstract problem that affects glaciers,” she said. “This is a problem that affects us, our neighbors, our own communities, our own people.”
“It’s not about polar bears, it’s about our children.”