How Can Climate Change Impact Global Health?
From extreme weather to air pollution, environmental damage can be disastrous for human health too.
Climate change poses a serious threat, not only to the environment but also to global public health.
From air pollution to wildfires, both the causes and effects of climate change can be responsible for a host of additional health issues and related deaths.
It was, in fact, declared a “true public health emergency” by 74 major medical and public health groups in a call to action in 2019 — which asked government, business, and civil society leaders to take "urgent and essential steps" to protect people's health "in the era of climate change."
Air pollution is just one form of environmental damage that can also cause serious harm to the human body.
Children ride swings in a playground engulfed by smog in Lahore, Pakistan, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017.
As a result of fossil fuel emissions and PM2.5 particulates, air pollution is a major risk to respiratory and cardiovascular health, causing additional asthma cases, pneumonia, coronary heart disease, lung cancer, and other respiratory illnesses.
Air pollution also shortens the people's lifespans by an average of three years globally, according to a study published in Cardiovascular Research in March. The study shows that air pollution is responsible for one-third of deaths from lung cancer and heart disease.
An estimated 7 million people die from air pollution every year, but cutting back on fossil fuel emissions could significantly reduce the number of premature carbon-related deaths – as well as helping mitigate climate change.
“Burning fossil fuels accounts for two-thirds or more of global carbon emissions, carbon pollution,” Dr. Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard C-CHANGE), told Global Citizen.
He added: “If you stop burning fossil fuels, you prevent the lion share of carbon emissions and you can prevent millions of deaths and even greater numbers of additional heart attacks and strokes and lung problems.”
Rising temperatures and extreme heat are also responsible for a variety of illnesses and diseases. As the Earth continues to warm, people all over the world are at an increased risk of heatstroke, skin cancer, dehydration, and heat stress.
People walk in the street during a hot day in Tokyo's district of Ueno on Aug. 7, 2019.
The US Global Change Research Program predicted tens of thousands of premature heat-related deaths in their 2016 assessment on climate change’s impact on human health.
“Extreme heatwaves are getting more common and worse, and as any health professional can attest, heat kills — mostly young children and the elderly, but outdoor workers, student-athletes, and military recruits too,” Ed Maibach, the director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, told Global Citizen.
Warmer weather can also increase the number of mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects, exposing people to deadly mosquito-borne and tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease, Zika virus, and malaria.
If rising temperatures persist, an additional 1 billion people could be exposed to disease-carrying mosquitoes by 2080, according to a study published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases in March.
Extreme weather patterns and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, like hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, are also hazardous to public health.
In addition to impacting the environment, natural disasters cause injury, death, and can aggravate other previous underlying medical conditions.
“Other forms of extreme weather like dangerous storms are becoming more common and worse too,” Maibach said. “These storms often lead to people being seriously hurt or dying, but they also lead to people being driven from their homes — during a flood, for example — which can cause other health problems.”
A woman washes her clothes in a flooded residential area in Nhamatanda, about 100km west of Beira, March 21, 2019. A week after Cyclone Idai lashed southern Africa, flooding still raged as torrential rains caused a dam to overflow in Zimbabwe.
One 2019 Oregon State University study projected that storm-related deaths would increase by 52% under climate change. Meanwhile, floods and hurricanes can also contaminate water supplies by causing waste or chemical facilities to become flooded.
While climate change can impact human health in many ways, not everyone is equally at risk. People living in poverty and people of color are most likely to be affected, highlights Maibach, as well as young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people living with preexisting medical conditions.
Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy is one way to help ensure that everyone is able to live better and healthier lives.
"This is not only the most important health action we can take in the long-run," Maibach said, "it also has immediate benefits because the sooner we switch to clean energy, the sooner we enjoy the benefits of clean air and water, and better health."