Here’s how climate change is hurting your health

Discussions about climate change often prompt one to think of a distant 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 worse.

“There is no safe rise in global temperature from a health perspective, and further warming will affect all regions of the United States,” said the report, published by the medical journal The Lancet. “… We have all been or are likely to be affected by climate change, with some hazards more easily recognizable than others. “

Droughts, extreme heat and forest fires are among the most visible and widely discussed threats, as they cause immediate devastation and fuel future implications, such as sea level rise. United last year, the newspaper pointed out, there was a “record”22 weather and climate disasters each causing over $ 1 billion in damage and over $ 95 billion in total losses.

“Climate change exacerbates existing problems, as climate-related events interact with other stressors to threaten lives, undermine the health of populations and stress health systems,” the report said.

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

Extreme heat

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

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

With more and prolonged heat, more cooling is also needed for the houses. But as The Lancet discovered, many populations historically have not had the access to do so. In 2019, the newspaper found that air conditioning prevented an estimated 48,000 heat-related deaths in the United States among people over 65. Access to air conditioning, however, varies “considerably”, with 30% of the Pacific region of the United States lacking access. And even when people have air conditioning, the extreme heat can cause power outages as demand for electricity increases.

In 2020, people 65 and older in the United States had a total of almost 300 million days of heatwave exposure more than the benchmark average from 1986 to 2005, Lancet reported. Compared to that same benchmark, infants under one year of age had nearly 22 million additional 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 with an urban heat island effect – a situation that occurs when cities implement dense amounts of pavements, buildings and other surfaces that retain heat. The Environmental Protection Agency has also warned of the impacts of climate change on these areas, saying summer heatwaves in cities like Chicago are likely to become “more frequent, severe and longer” as a result of climate change.

Each year in the United States, an average of 702 people die and 9,235 people are hospitalized due to the extreme heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pregnant women, people with heart or lung problems, young children, the elderly, athletes and outdoor workers are all more vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat, according to the agency.

More than a third of heat deaths worldwide each year are directly due to global warming, according to one to study released earlier this year.


Droughts, prolonged periods without sufficient rainfall, have only increased in the United States over the years. Just this week California announced that it had recorded its driest year in almost a century. A lack of precipitation is not only a slight inconvenience, it is linked to an exhausting cycle of health and economic tragedies.

As detailed by The Lancet, droughts limit the availability of water for businesses and agriculture, while decreasing water levels in natural bodies, wells and aquifers. Without sufficient rainfall, toxic algae flourish in the available water supplies and the air becomes much dustier because of the dry soil. Drought also worsens heat waves and forest fires, impacting human health.

With all of these environmental elements, people living in areas of drought suffer a higher risk of heat stroke and complications related to their heart, lungs and kidneys, according to the Lancet report. They are also more susceptible to food and water insecurity, respiratory problems, worsening asthma and West Nile virus, as weather conditions are more conducive to mosquitoes carrying the virus.

During the summer, a ‘mega-drought”Affected the Colorado River system, which provides water to 40 million people in seven states. The dry spell, spurred by climate change, has reduced much of the water from the Hoover Dam and critical lakes.

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

All of these drought-stimulated issues create a spiral that leads to stress, anxiety and depression, and it is mainly people of color and those living in rural areas who suffer the brunt of this damage, according to The Lancet.

“Inequitable and racist policies often force some communities, such as low-income and indigenous communities, not to have adequate water rights / access, to depend on small water supply systems and / or wells private drinking water, ”says the report.

Forest fires

Fueled by extreme heat and droughts, both exacerbated by climate change, forest fires present dangerous conditions for people around the world. Last year was a record wildfire season in the United States, and those seasons are only expected to lengthen as global warming continues.

In August, the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San Jose State University found that in California, fires are burning hotter and spreading further faster.

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

Wildfires themselves destroy agriculture and force people to leave their homes, but the smoke they produce can be perhaps more dangerous. The smoke is filled with “harmful” pollutants, according to The Lancet, which lead to increased respiratory distress, risks of heart and lung disease, premature death and premature birth, while worsening mental health.

The effects of this smoke go far beyond the area directly in the path of a forest fire. During the summer, smoke from the massive forest fires that ravaged the western United States was blown by the wind to the the other end of the country.

In 2020, the California wildfires produced particle levels about 14 times the current health-based limit, The Lancet said. And as in situations of drought and extreme heat, people of low income and of color tend to be more vulnerable to the adverse effects of wildfires, the report says.

A push for change

Under the Paris Climate Agreement, nations are expected to strive to do their part to limit global warming to 1.5 ° C, a critical threshold for limiting catastrophic natural disasters and catastrophic weather conditions. . To do this, the production of fossil fuels, which generates significant carbon dioxide emissions, must be drastically reduced globally, as these emissions help trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

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

A worsening climate crisis means deteriorating health, and in its report, The Lancet recommended that governments “quickly reduce” their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to avoid the worst health effects of climate change. The journal also recommended that governments increase funding for health protection and consider the health-related costs of fossil fuels when evaluating policies.

Specifically, the newspaper recommended that officials focus on developing renewable energy, building better-equipped transportation systems for electric cars, buses, walking and cycling, and investing in preparedness and resilience. communities.

“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 “the biggest health threat facing humanity.

“The same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the organization’s CEO. “WHO calls on all countries to commit to taking 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 is in our own interests.

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