Hotter summers, longer winters and natural disasters are some of the disruptive impacts brought on by climate change. It’s heating up conversations for many people, especially in the wake of the president’s recent executive actions aimed at unraveling federal enforcement of climate regulations.
“Climate change is the greatest public health challenge of our generation,” says Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association in Washington, D.C. “Climate change is bad for our health and the environment. We are the first to experience the effects of climate change and may be the last generation that can do something about it.”
Hot air, hot lungs
The impact of climate change includes warming temperatures, rising sea levels, changes in precipitation and a higher rate of some extreme weather events. These all threaten the food we eat, air we breathe, water we drink and weather we experience.
“The science is clear: Climate change is real,” Benjamin says. “Over 97% of experts agree. The last three years have demonstrated record-breaking warmth, with 2016 being the warmest on record, and hundred-year floods are becoming more and more common. Climate change is human-caused and happening now.”
Climate change intensifies several ailments that revolve around reduced air quality, which, Benjamin says, increases the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
“Longer and hotter warm seasons are leading to longer pollen seasons, resulting in increased allergy and asthma exacerbations,” he says.
Dr. Mona Sarfaty, program director at the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health in Virginia, says too much exposure to heat can cause heat illness, heat exhaustion or stroke.
“Children, the elderly and those who work outside are especially vulnerable,” she says. “During heat waves, people need to think about staying hydrated.”
According to Benjamin, more extreme and frequent weather events, such as long-lasting snow, are often associated with violent behavior and suicide, increased anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
Additionally, environmental events can drive people to migrate, which can weigh heavily on a person when they lose their sense of community.
“The rising sea level is now causing flooding at high tide in coastal areas all along the East Coast, with special problems in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and other locations,” Sarfaty says. “Storm surges make this even worse. In some places, these conditions have caused people to leave their homes. This is stressful and disorienting.”
Climate change is projected to cause an increase in ocean temperatures, as well. And certain marine bacteria that make humans sick are more likely to survive and thrive as oceans get warmer, Benjamin says. This poses heightened risk of food-borne illness for the shellfish industry.
It’s a lose-lose situation.
“Increased drought is decreasing crop yields and water availability,” Benjamin says. “Increased flooding is increasing risk of gastrointestinal illness, mold and mildew exposure.”
Health care costs aren’t immune to climate change, either. “Emergency room visits, chronic diseases, gastrointestinal illness, injuries and even death all stand to increase in a changing climate,” Benjamin says. “Health care costs will rise, and there will be added demand on the health care system.”
According to Sarfaty, right now the awareness of how climate change implicates health is very low. But she and Benjamin are hopeful that will soon change.
“Too many people think this is about other people in faraway places,” Sarfaty says. “We want them to know that the ultimate danger of climate change is that it presents a risk to the health of everyone. Physicians are giving talks, writing op eds and articles in the online and print media and talking to policymakers at the state and local level.”