A changing climate has widespread implications for human health. The World Health Organization writes that “over the last 50 years, human activities — particularly the burning of fossil fuels — have released sufficient quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to trap additional heat in the lower atmosphere and affect the global climate.
“In the last 130 years, the world has warmed by approximately 0.85°C. Each of the last 3 decades has been successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850.
“Although global warming may bring some localized benefits, such as fewer winter deaths in temperate climates and increased food production in certain areas, the overall health effects of a changing climate are likely to be overwhelmingly negative. Climate change affects social and environmental determinants of health — clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.”
Flooding, heat events, starvation, fires, more infectious disease, drought, unsafe drinking water and less access to food are clearly bad for people’s health! Pictures of polar bears on shrinking ice floes grab at our heartstrings, but this is about our grandchildren, our neighbors, and our friends. In 2009 the prestigious British medical Journal, The Lancet got it exactly right in calling climate change “the biggest global health threat of this century”.
Today’s clinicians see the toll climate change is taking on the health, safety, and well-being of our patients and our communities. We see our patients and our grandchildren wheezing and coughing when smoke from wildfires pollutes our air. All over the world including the US, we see excess deaths from heat events, and destruction and death related to flooding and excess rain. And the twin sibling of climate change, air pollution, has been associated with 8-10 excess deaths on the planet today. Climate change and air pollution share the same root cause (using fossil fuel to create energy), but while impacts of climate change are baked into the atmosphere for decades almost no matter what we do, the positive impacts of cleaner air accrue very quickly!
While there have been several previous “mass extinctions” on earth, this is the first of them that is “anthropogenic”(ie, created by human activity). A partial list of consequences of climate change and air pollution includes lung cancer, chronic lung disease, asthma, heart disease, increased premature death, ER visits, and hospitalizations, school and work absenteeism, violence, depression, suicide, substance abuse, increased infant mortality and decreased cognitive development of children, and deaths and injuries related to floods, draughts, heat events, and other extreme weather events and expansion of infectious disease. These consequences are not evenly distributed among people. Many are most common in impoverished and minority communities, the very young, the very old, pregnant women, and people with pre-existing heart and lung conditions.
Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed one of the first successful polio vaccines, said “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.” There is time to avoid the worst, and our hope is that having a better understanding of the human health impacts of climate change and air pollution will create the collective will, the energy, and the commitment to respond to this crises with the depth, breadth, and decisiveness that it requires. There is simply no time to waste.
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