Climate Change Threatens Health; PSR Promotes Solutions
Climate change is one of the greatest health threats facing humanity in the 21st century. As worldwide patterns of temperature, precipitation and weather events change, the delicate balance of climate and life is disrupted, with serious impacts on food and agriculture, water sources, and health.
Potentially lethal heat waves, extreme storms and rising sea levels contribute to disease, injury and death. Indirect effects of climate change include droughts, floods, worsening air and water pollution, crop damage, and the spread of pest- and waterborne diseases.
Children, the poor, the elderly, and those with a weak or impaired immune system are especially vulnerable.
Climate change contributes to world crises. Changes in temperature and rainfall, rising sea levels and impacts on agriculture have driven people from their homes, creating “climate refugees.”
Causes and solutions
Human activities are the primary cause of global warming and climate destabilization. By burning oil and gas to power our homes, industries and transportation systems, we add carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is now higher than at any point in the last 420,000 years.
Fortunately, because our actions accelerate the problem, our actions can also slow climate change. When we reject dirty fossil fuels and turn instead to energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy sources like wind, waves and sun, we create solutions to this existential threat.
That’s why stopping the use of fossil fuels and promoting healthy, clean renewables are the heart of PSR’s climate action.
PSR: Educating, activating health professionals
PSR educates health professionals about the health consequences of climate change and mobilizes them to respond. Through our national office in Washington, DC and our network of chapters across the country, we:
- Provide information on climate-related health threats. See Climate Change Health Effects 101, below.
- Offer resources on the harms to health from coal-fired power plants, coal ash and fracked gas (methane).
- Promote the health-supportive value of clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency.
- Train and prepare health professionals to speak out – writing letters to the editor and op-eds, providing testimony, and educating their elected officials.
- Engage health professionals in raising the “health voice” on climate- and health-related policies.
Climate Change Health Effects 101: Top-10 Facts on Climate Change and Health
Most years, it”s heat waves. (The exception: hurricanes like Katrina, which caused over 1,800 deaths.) Extreme and sustained heat can cause heat stroke, which can result in delirium, convulsions, coma, and even death. Extreme heat events are rising in frequency, duration, and magnitude. They are particularly dangerous in urban “heat islands,” where people without access air condition are particularly vulnerable.
Higher temperatures increase the formation of ground-level ozone, a dangerous air pollutant. Ozone exposure can reduce lung function, permanently damage lung tissue, provoke new cases of asthma, and aggravate other chronic lung diseases. Ozone also affects the cardiovascular system and can increase the risk of dangerous heart arrhythmias. Further, ozone exposure increases the number of low birth-weight babies, the leading cause of infant mortality in the U.S. Millions of Americans live in areas that fail to meet the health standards for ozone.
Infants, older adults, and people with lung diseases are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. People of color and those earning lower incomes are often disproportionately affected. For example, asthma prevalence is higher in children who are Puerto Rican, African American, or American Indian/Alaska Native than it is in white children.
Increases in heavy rainfall, especially when interspersed with periods of drought, can contribute to flooding and contaminate water supplies. Dangerous waterborne diseases include hepatitis, giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis, and Naegleria fowleri, the brain-eating amoeba. Flooding can cause sewer overflows, with potential increases in infectious diseases; flooding can also cause injuries and deaths, mold, psychological effects, and an increase in the populations of rats, mosquitoes and other disease-bearing hosts.
Mosquitoes carry malaria, dengue fever, West Nile Virus, Zika, and other diseases. Higher temperatures boost their reproductive and biting rates, lengthen their breeding season, and accelerate the maturation of the malaria pathogen. Heat also allows disease-carrying mosquitoes to expand their range, potentially exposing new populations.
Rising sea level affects people, animals, and crops in coastal areas worldwide. It intensifies the effect of storm surges, can inundate croplands with salt water, and contributes to flooding. The city of Miami now has regular street flooding and sewer backups when high tide coincides with a full moon.
Extreme weather disasters not only cause event-related death and injury, but cause the loss of homes, infrastructure and jobs. These effects strike hardest at those who are poorer at the time of the event. By worsening these social determinants of health, extreme climate events disproportionately harm the health and well-being of low-income and minority communities.
Climate change affects agricultural production through severe storms, flooding, heat, drought, water evaporation, decreased pollination, and sea level rise.
In the short term we can take steps to adapt to climate change, applying technologies like barriers on coastlines and pumps to avoid sewer backup. But if the climate continues to heat up, the consequences will become catastrophic. Recent reports, like those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warn that adaptation alone will not protect us.
We need to stop burning fossil fuels and transition as quickly as possible to clean, healthy, no-burn renewable energy for all. We also need to increase energy efficiency so we can live well with less energy. Finally, there are steps we can all take that decrease our use of fossil fuels while improving our health—like walking and biking instead of driving, planting trees and expanding green spaces and green roofs, and changing our diets so we consume less meat.