Understanding the relationship between health and climate change is no longer just a question of “should.” Today’s leading medical and life sciences organizations recognize that taking measures against this “greatest threat” to global public health requires immediate action.

From a patient care perspective, direct harms include heat-related illnesses and exposure to air pollution; but indirect impacts also accumulate:

Water

Temperature rise can lead to an increase in water-related deaths and illnesses from heat stress or heatstroke; air quality issues aggravate respiratory health for 300 million asthma sufferers; flooding events compromise drinking water sources and cause displacement; while dengue fever, Lyme disease, and West Nile virus thrive in warmer environments.

Climate change hazards affect us all, but their severity varies depending on a person’s location and level of vulnerability. A person’s ability to adapt and mitigate climate change threats depends on factors like their age, income, living situation and access to healthcare.

Climate Change presents numerous health implications that impact humans directly. Here are the most impactful ones:

Many of these threats can be addressed through measures to lower greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, investing in “greening” health care facilities with solar panels and energy efficient equipment is one way to help lower their carbon footprint. Furthermore, health care facilities must remain accessible during and following disasters caused by climate change, providing safe care services that are both reliable and safe during these situations.

Investing in cooling infrastructure and green spaces during a heat wave, for instance, can prevent deaths caused by overexposure to extreme heat. Also ensuring patients with preexisting mental illnesses can seek medical advice during such an event can help avoid an imminent crisis situation.

Climate Change poses not only an immediate danger to human health but can also exacerbate inequalities among communities in the US. It exacerbates existing disparities in accessing health care, food security and housing; further compounded by factors such as poverty, racism or other forms of discrimination, limited education or skills and social isolation and loneliness. Therefore it is crucial that the link be made between climate change and health equity – as well as taking measures accordingly – in order to make meaningful progress toward improving both areas. This is why making connections between climate change and health equity and taking actions steps is so essential.

Air

Air pollution–comprising particulate matter (PM) and ozone–is a significant health threat, contributing to and worsening many respiratory diseases. Air pollutants come from sources like burning fossil fuels as well as other sources such as crop fertilizer, livestock manure and wildfires, where they interact with radiation by absorbing or scattering sunlight to warm climate systems and interact with clouds; additionally they agglomerate to form surface smogs.

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Climate change is projected to worsen ground-level ozone pollution and increase PM levels in the air due to windblown dust, drought-induced smoke and wildfires, drought and wildfire smoke as well as windblown dust from wind-powered machines and some forms of smoke from natural fires. Climate change will also exacerbate levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds emitted either directly by human activities or indirectly through natural sources.

Pollutants produced by burning fossil fuels – particularly coal, oil and gas – include carbon dioxide and methane emissions that warm our climate system as well as soot, smog and nitrate particles produced when emissions from cars, trucks, factories, power plants, incinerators engines or anything that uses fossil fuels react with sunlight.

Human-produced (anthropogenic, or human-made) aerosols emitted into the atmosphere can travel far distances before landing in remote regions where they darken ice and snow and block sunlight from reflecting back into space. This adds to global warming. These emissions of predominantly sulfate aerosols come from vehicles, coal power plants, oil refineries, and other industrial activities and take decades to dissipate from our atmosphere.

Black carbon, produced when fossil fuels and biomass burn, is another anthropogenic air pollutant. It plays an important role in producing ground-level ozone while also reacting with radiation to warm the climate system and precipitate and modify atmospheric circulation patterns. Other anthropogenic aerosols include nitrates and forms of organic carbon which have net cooling effects by scattering solar radiation and encouraging cloud formation.

Reaching the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires deep cuts in CO2 and non-CO2 climate forcers such as air pollutants. Tackling these challenges requires innovative and holistic approaches that deliver benefits both to people’s health and climate change mitigation.

Food

Climate change threatens to limit global food supplies and diminish their quality, quantity and availability. Global food production requires vast amounts of water, land, sunlight and energy; with increasing populations and changing diets straining these resources further. Many are concerned that Earth may no longer be able to produce enough to feed everyone on its surface.

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Climate change puts the food security of people living both in developing and developed nations at risk. Floods, droughts, more intense hurricanes, heat waves and wildfires all pose risks that can devastate crops, livestock and transportation networks, while rising carbon dioxide levels make staple crops like wheat and rice less nutritious – creating additional issues for 800 million individuals who already suffer from hunger or malnutrition.

Temperature increases can reduce the nutritional content of fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, while higher CO2 concentrations in the air impede plants from absorbing essential minerals like iron and zinc that plants need. This issue impacts both adults and children – in fact 175 million children are expected to develop Zinc Deficiency by 2050!

Climate events that disrupt food production drive up prices, with those living below poverty line being particularly susceptible. Studies indicate they spend a greater proportion of their income on food than people above it – making them even more vulnerable when climate events disrupt production.

In the US, an estimated one-third of the food grown by farmers is lost or wasted between harvest and consumption, contributing significantly to climate change by emitting large amounts of Carbon Dioxide and Methane emissions from farming, storage, transporting and preparing food.

Diet can be one of the most effective tools to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with plant-based foods proven to cut emissions up to 57%. Acknowledging all aspects of how food is produced and consumed requires corporate practices at national and international levels; yet individual consumer actions also matter: shopping locally at markets or purchasing organic, fair trade foods will help decrease your carbon footprint.

Shelter

Climate is defined as the long-term change to average temperature and weather patterns in an area. While this change can be brought about by natural events like volcanic eruptions, human activity is the leading contributor. When we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas we release greenhouse gases that act like blankets around Earth trapping heat and raising temperatures; climate change has already caused many problems from heat waves to ocean acidification, droughts, wildfires – as well as creating health risks to vulnerable populations such as refugees and migrants.

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Displaced people frequently spend several years living in shelters that expose them to health-related risks, including poor indoor air quality (IAQ), limited clean water access and overcrowding – as well as exposure to communicable diseases such as diarrheal diseases, cholera, measles, influenza and bronchitis which can result in diarrheal disease outbreaks as well as diarrhea, depression and trauma, possibly leading to suicide (WHO 2018a).

Irregular housing conditions in refugee camps and settlements have been linked with negative health outcomes, including dampness and mould growth, increased respiratory diseases such as asthma and infections from insect bites or parasites, as well as difficulty with ventilation leading to low indoor air quality and elevated levels of volatile organic compounds and particulate matter (PM). Overcrowding increases risks such as respiratory diseases as well as infections from insect bites or parasites – not to mention infections originating from insect bites themselves! Furthermore, overcrowded shelters create difficult ventilation issues leading to poor IAQ levels with high levels of volatile organic compounds and particulate matter (PM), contributing directly or indirectly towards worse health results than otherwise possible.

Climate also impacts our environment in ways other than temperature changes directly. A warmer atmosphere can cause more intense droughts, floods and tornadoes – with droughts being especially devastating in low-income countries where many depend on agriculture as their livelihood and less access to emergency medical care facilities. Droughts especially harm those living in low-income nations where agriculture provides their primary income stream – leaving this population susceptible to diseases caused by extreme weather events as well as less access to emergency healthcare resources.

While global warming poses serious threats to human health, there are steps we can take to mitigate its adverse impact. For example, investing in more efficient energy sources may reduce emissions while saving on power bills and saving money in power bills. Furthermore, building resilient infrastructure such as roads and schools that can withstand climate change should also be prioritized.