“When the general public visualizes global warming, they may picture a stranded polar bear in a distant, remote area instead of an asthmatic child struggling to breathe in their own neighborhood,” said Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School. “The latter image could motivate more people to focus on climate change today and not sometime in the future.
How extensive is the problem? “This issue basically affects the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the places in which we live. It’s an all-encompassing public health challenge,” said Koh, who is also former assistant secretary for health with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Globally, about 12.6 million people die each year due to environmental risk factors such as pollution, extreme weather or climate-related disease, according to the World Health Organization. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is projected to cause about 250,000 additional deaths per year from heat stress, malnutrition and the spread of infectious diseases like malaria, WHO estimates.
Injuries from severe weather events are one of the most obvious signs of global warming, according to Dr. Barry Levy, adjunct professor of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine. “Not every severe weather event is due to climate change,” but warmer water in the North Atlantic probably contributed to the severity of Superstorm Sandy, said Levy, who is also co-editor of the 2015 book Climate Change and Public Health.
Levy noted, too, that warmer and longer heat waves are leading to more cases of heat-related deaths and heat-related complications in cardiovascular, pulmonary, and other disorders. A three-week European heat wave in 2003 killed 40,000 people, he said. “Some of that is thought to be due to climate change.”
“Heat waves, which are extreme heat events that last several days, are the No. 1 cause of US weather-related fatalities on average over the last 30 years, more than tornadoes, more than floods, more than lightning,” said Kim Knowlton, assistant clinical professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She spoke at a February 2017 climate and health meeting in Atlanta, hosted by the American Public Health Association, former Vice President Al Gore, and more than 50 organizations representing scientists, policymakers and activists.
Disease is another significant problem. A team of American and Venezuelan scientists took a close statistical look at the relationship between climate and the Zika outbreak and concluded that climate change and long-term weather cycles, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, played important roles in pushing temperatures up to those favored by Zika-carrying mosquitoes.
Cholera is a more serious problem when water is warmer. “I would put cholera highest on my list to worry about with respect to climate change,” said Dr. David M. Morens, senior advisor to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). “Cholera likes warm weather, so the warmer the Earth gets and the warmer the water gets, the more it’s going to like it. Climate change will likely make cholera much worse.” Cholera already kills more than 100,000 people globally every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Mona Sarfaty directs the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, a coalition of 12 medical societies representing more than half the physicians in the U.S. The Consortium released a report in March 2017 called “Medical Alert! Climate Change is Harming Our Health” that mapped how climate change threatens the health of people across the United States and how those threats vary by region. Extreme temperatures and weather events, poor outdoor air quality, contaminated food and water, mosquito- and tick-borne infections, wildfires and stresses on mental health are the climate-related health risks identified in the report, which was based on information from the Global Climate Change Research Group’s report “Health 2016: The Impact of Climate Change in the U.S.”
"There's a gap between the public's understanding of the health implications of climate change and physicians' understanding of the health implications of climate change," Sarfaty said. "Most people are not aware that climate change is a danger to their health, and physicians see that risk." The program office of the Consortium is at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.
Some 200,000 Americans died prematurely last year because of air pollution. World-wide, the total was a sobering 4.2 million. A new study tied low birth weight, which typically reflects premature birth, in four New Jersey counties to emissions from a nearby coal-fired plant.
And here’s one more way that greenhouse gases are making it harder to breathe: dust storms related to drought. Fifty years ago in Beijing and northern China dust storms used to occur once every seven or eight years. Now they are essentially an annual event, The New York Times reported recently. The main cause is expansion of the nation’s deserts by 1,300 square miles a year, with the wind carrying sand and soil to urban areas. Beijing’s air quality index hit 623 one day in early May. The United States considers a rating above 100 “unhealthy.” Children and the elderly were urged to stay inside.
As if all these health problems weren’t troubling enough, they take an enormous economic toll. We’ll leave an examination of that damage to a future blog post.
If you think our country should take action to reduce climate change’s threat to health, we have a suggestion: Urge your senators and House member to support a carbon fee. Such a fee is the quickest, most efficient way to tackle climate change.