Why Climate Change is a Serious Public Health Threat

Why Climate Change is a Serious Public Health Threat

Writer’s note: Sorry this post may seem depressing, but I’m aiming for it to educate and empower you all. Keep learning, have informed conversations and fight for change. It is also a call for health systems and professionals to integrate and collaborate with climate adaptation and resilience.

With the global climate strikes showcasing millions of people taking to the streets to demand drastic action and commitment from leadership now and the recently held UN Climate Action Summit, it’s clear we aren’t f*cking about. Human-induced climate change has been causing destruction to people, animals and the planet for decades and is getting much worse (species extinction, extreme weather patterns, sea level rising…). The scientific consensus is that we have a very small window of opportunity to create drastic change to literally survive.

If 97% of the global scientific community turn out to be wrong about human-induced climate change and we have drastically changed the way we live to reach zero carbon emissions, then fine, all we’ve done is created a healthier and more innovative world. Oh, the tragedy.

One of the most popular climate cartoons by Pulitzer-Prize winning editorial cartoonist Joel W. Pett.

When discussing climate change, it’s often the case that people think of starving polar bears and melting ice caps. Yes we care about the polar bears, but we also need to connect climate destruction with human health. Human-induced climate change is ironically one of the biggest threats to human health, quality of life and survival. I’m talking about millions of people being directly and indirectly killed from climate change and others living a much lower quality of life – and it doesn’t matter what country you live in. This will be particularly true for vulnerable groups such as children, older people and lower socio-economic groups.

Related Post: Amazon Rainforest Fires: Why a ‘People-First’ Approach to Climate Action is Better Than Telling Folks to Go Vegan

Here are some of the ways that climate change is and will affect public health (based on credible scientific evidence and data). Global health and governance structures invite intersectional collaboration and innovation to develop resilience and adapt to climate change. Health structures, scientists, doctors and health organisations MUST be part of climate crisis conversations and adaptation implementation.

It’s getting hot in here

Our house is on fire

–Swedish activist Greta Thunberg

For many, their house being on fire is not a metaphor, it’s true. The recent extreme fires in Queensland were unprecedented, with firefighters exclaiming that “the climate is changing and (we must) be ready to endure more early-season emergencies’. This is expected to get much worse, with Australia’s summer coming up in a blaze of well above-average heatwaves.

Increasingly hot environments impact human health in a variety of ways, directly and indirectly. Firstly, directly losing homes and environments obviously decreases people’s quality of life; besides the obvious fact that heat and fire are serious dangers to human life. Higher than average heatwaves have been claiming thousands of lives each year, putting pressure on health systems and the economy. The Economist argues that heatwaves are often not publicised and deaths are attributed to other conditions such as heart attacks indirectly caused by heat.

Global temperature chart from NASA.

Increasingly tropical environments are also predicted to increase climate-sensitive diseases such as malaria in certain regions such as Africa and South America. The full impact of increased tropical diseases is not fully understood. Tropical environments are also expected to impact food and water supplies. This is already occurring in areas such as India, in which 21 Indian cities are expected to run out of groundwater by next yeardue to increased heat. This is putting millions of lives at risk.

“If we are to achieve a world without hunger and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030, it is imperative that we accelerate and scale up actions to strengthen the resilience and adaptive capacity of food systems and people’s livelihoods in response to climate variability and extremes…” – UNFCC, UN Warns Climate Change is Driving Global Hunger, 2018

(Un)Natural Disasters

Not all areas will experience extreme heatwave occurrences, some will (and already have) experience extreme weather patterns such as hail, flooding and snow storms. A recent example is Spain’s worst flooding for 140 years. This lack of heat confuses people like President Donald Trump, who use it as an excuse to claim that climate change isn’t real (note: extreme weather can go in any direction, the science makes sense).

Besides the obvious threat to human life, natural disasters also decreases the quality of life, impact health infrastructure and increase the spread of infectious diseases. With the frequency of natural disasters drastically increasing (see the graph below), as does the impact on human health. Increased natural disasters have also increased climate change migration, which indirectly impacts human health.

Graph of natural disasters via Our World in Data.

Choking on ‘cheap’ energy

Air pollution is closely associated with climate change; with carbon emissions from non renewable energy for human use. We desperately need to move to clean energy to combat the health impacts from air pollution; lung cancer, heart disease, stroke etc. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to breathe in air that doesn’t kill me just… just for ‘cheap’ fuel. A study in 2018 concluded that between 2017-2025, air pollution will cost the NHS in England around £5.56 billion.

‘…the very air we breathe is growing dangerously polluted: nine out of ten people now breathe polluted air, which kills seven million people every year.’ – World Health Organisation, How air pollution is destroying our health, 2018

Mental health pathways

One of the least researched topics in the context of climate change is mental health, however it is often discussed. There are various predicted pathways between climate change and mental health: exasperated pre-existing mental illnesses, increased physical health issues causing mental illness, exposure to increased natural disasters causing anxiety, depression and PTSD, and change in lifestyle (such as farmers losing work from heatwaves).

If you or someone you know needs help, make sure to seek professional advice. In the United States, the American Psychological Association created an in-depth 69-page guide on mental health and our changing climate. In Australia, the Australian Psychology Society also has lots of resources.

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Feature image via Shutterstock.

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