Here’s how climate change is hurting your health

Credit: CBSNews
Credit: CBSNews

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Talks of climate change often spur thoughts of a far-off dystopia for future generations. But a new report shows that climate change is already damaging “the very foundations of our health and well-being” — and that governments are not doing enough to prevent it from getting substantially worse. 

“There is no safe global temperature rise from a health perspective, and additional warming will affect every U.S. region,” said the report, published by medical journal The Lancet. “…All of us have been or likely will be affected by climate change, with some hazards more easily recognizable than others.”

Droughts, extreme heat and wildfires are among the most visible and widely-discussed threats, as they cause immediate devastation and fuel future implications, such as rising sea levels. In the U.S. last year, the journal pointed out, there were a “record-breaking” 22 weather and climate disasters that each caused over $1 billion in damage and more than $95 billion in total losses. 

“Climate change makes existing problems worse as climate-linked events interact with other stressors to threaten lives, undermine population health and stress health systems,” the report says. 

The immediate effects of these weather events are drastic and dangerous, but it is also the more subtle impacts these events cause that take a serious, and disproportionate, toll on human health. 

Extreme heat

Humans have already caused the Earth to warm by 1.1°C on average compared to pre-industrial levels. As that warming continues, periods of extreme heat will only expand. But this doesn’t mean people should solely expect hotter days and longer summers — there are several subtle health effects of extreme heat that could only get worse with time. 

As The Lancet reports, research has shown that prolonged heat exposure can cause heat stroke and impact the lungs, kidneys and heart. It also causes declines in sleep quality and mental health, while increasing rates of suicide and crime, the report says. 

With more and prolonged heat also comes a need for more cooling for homes. But as The Lancet found, several populations have historically not had the access necessary to do so. In 2019, the journal found, air conditioning prevented roughly 48,000 heat-related deaths in the U.S. in people over the age of 65. Access to air conditioning, however, varies “significantly,” with 30% of the Pacific region of the U.S. lacking access. And even when people do have air conditioning, extreme heat can lead to power outages as demand for the electricity increases. 

In 2020, those 65 and older in the U.S. had a total of nearly 300 million more days of heatwave exposure compared to the 1986 to 2005 average baseline, Lancet reported. Compared to that same baseline, infants under one had nearly 22 million more days of heatwave exposure last year. 

A separate study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this month found that heat exposure is even more intense in areas experiencing an urban heat island effect — a situation that occurs when cities implement dense amounts of pavement, buildings and other surfaces that retain heat. The Environmental Protection Agency has also warned of the impacts climate change will have on these areas, saying summer heat waves in cities like Chicago will likely become “more frequent, more severe, and longer” because of climate change.  

Every year in the U.S., an average of 702 people die and 9,235 people are hospitalized due to extreme heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those who are pregnant, who have heart or lung conditions, young children, older adults, athletes and outdoor workers are all more vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat, the agency says.

More than one-third of the world’s heat deaths each year are due directly to global warming, according to a study released earlier this year.

Droughts

Droughts, prolonged periods of time without enough precipitation, have only increased in the U.S. over the years. Just this week, California announced that it has recorded its driest year in nearly a century. A lack of precipitation is not just a mild inconvenience — it’s linked to a grueling cycle of health and economic tragedy. 

As detailed by The Lancet, droughts limit water availability for businesses and agriculture, while also diminishing water levels natural bodies, wells and aquifers. Without enough precipitation, toxic algae blooms in available water supplies and the air becomes significantly more dusty because of dry soil. The dryness also makes heatwaves and wildfires worse, which impacts human health. 

With all of these environmental elements, people living in areas with droughts suffer from higher risk of heatstroke and complications related to their heart, lungs and kidneys, The Lancet report says. They are also more susceptible to food and water insecurity, breathing problems, worsening asthma and West Nile Virus, as the weather conditions are more suitable for the virus-carrying mosquitoes. 

Over the summer, a “mega-drought” hit the Colorado River system, which provides water to 40 million people in seven states. The dry period, spurred by climate change, caused much of the water in the Hoover Dam and essential lakes to diminish.

“If we don’t have irrigation water, we can’t farm,” one farmer in Arizona told CBS News at the time. “So, next year we are going to get about 25% less water, means we’re going to have to fallow or not plant 25% of our land.” 

All of these issues spurred by drought create a spiral that leads to stress, anxiety and depression, and it is primarily people of color and those who live in rural areas that bear the brunt of this harm, The Lancet says. 

“Inequitable and racist policies often force certain communities, such as low-income and Indigenous, to lack adequate water rights/access, depend on small water systems and/or private drinking wells,” the report says.

Wildfires

Fueled by extreme heat and droughts, both of which are exacerbated by climate change, wildfires pose hazardous conditions for people across the globe. Last year was a record-breaking wildfire season in the U.S., and such seasons are only predicted to get longer as global warming continues. 

In August, San Jose State University’s Fire Weather Research Laboratory found that in California, the fires are burning hotter and spreading farther faster

“The main reason that these fires are getting so large so quickly is the fact that the fuels are so dry,” said SJSU Professor Craig Clements. “We have unprecedented dryness in our forests because of the drought. And that leads to more heat release. And with more heat release, they spread faster.”

The wildfires themselves destroy agriculture and force people from their home, but the smoke they produce can be perhaps more dangerous. The smoke is filled with “harmful” pollutants, according to The Lancet, that leads to increases in respiratory distress, risk of heart and lung disease, premature death and preterm birth, while also worsening mental health. 

The effects from this smoke go well beyond the area directly within the path of a wildfire. Over the summer, smoke from the massive wildfires that were tearing across the Western U.S. was being carried by the wind to the other side of the country

In 2020, the California wildfires produced particulate matter levels roughly 14 times higher than the current health-based limit, The Lancet said. And similar to in situations of droughts and extreme heat, low-income and people of color tend to be more vulnerable to the harmful effects of wildfires, the report says. 

A push for change

As part of the Paris Climate Agreement, nations are supposed to be working to do their part in limiting global warming to 1.5°C, a threshold that is vital to limiting catastrophic natural disasters and abysmal weather conditions. To do so, fossil fuel production, which creates significant carbon dioxide emissions, must be drastically cut worldwide, as those emissions help trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to the warming planet. 

Scientists predict that at current emission rates, the world will hit the 1.5°C threshold in the 2030s. But even still, the United Nations has found that 15 of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers are planning to increase their production and have significant policies in support of fossil fuels, jeopardizing the global initiative to curb the worst effects of the climate crisis.

A worsening climate crisis means declining health, and in its report, The Lancet recommended that governments “rapidly reduce” their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to prevent the worst health outcomes of climate change. The journal also recommended that governments increase funding for health protections, and consider the health-related costs of fossil fuels when weighing policies. 

Specifically, the journal recommended that officials work to expand renewable energy, build transportation systems better equipped for electric cars, buses, walking and biking, and invest in community preparedness and resilience. 

“We have the solutions we need to improve our health and advance equity by tackling climate change,” their report says. “We just need the will to act.” 

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization warned that climate change is the “single biggest health threat facing humanity.” 

“The same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the organization’s director-general said. “WHO calls on all countries to commit to decisive action at COP26 to limit global warming to 1.5°C – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s in our own interests.”

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