Some issues should rise above the clatter of Capitol Hill discord. Like the air we breathe and the water we drink, they are too fundamental to ignore – and too important to get lost amid partisan squabbling. They are concerns at the heart of the universal human rights we all enjoy.
Public health ranks high among them, and it’s threatened in a critical way by the climate crisis.
Climate change will continue to exacerbate existing threats to health and give rise to new ones. And while the movement for solutions may seem in the throes of an especially challenging moment, addressing the crisis’ impacts on our current and future well-being is not a political issue but an ethical and practical one.
According to the World Health Organization, “Climate change is among the greatest health risks of the twenty first century. Rising temperatures and more extreme weather events cost lives directly, increase transmission and spread of infectious diseases, and undermine the environmental determinants of health, including clean air and water, and sufficient food.”
The impact of the climate crisis on human health is far-reaching, but solutions exist that can help us improve quality of life around the world right now and work toward a healthier, more sustainable future for all. Indeed, this very subject will be front and center on February 16 when the public health and climate communities come together to share knowledge and advocate for action at the Climate & Health Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.
Hosted by former US Vice President Al Gore, the American Public Health Association (APHA), The Climate Reality Project, Harvard Global Health Institute, the University of Washington Center for Health and the Global Environment, and Dr. Howard Frumkin, former director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, the meeting will provide a crucial forum for collaboration.
But to solve a problem, first you’ve got to understand what’s at stake. Here’s a quick look:
The same carbon pollution that causes climate change can indirectly aggravate respiratory concerns like asthma and allergies.
Burning fossil fuels not only pollutes our air directly with irritants like particulate matter and soot, but as greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere and average temperatures rise, they also contribute to higher levels of ground-level ozone that can cause acute and long-term respiratory problems. Moreover, rising global average temperatures lead to longer pollen seasons in many places and – when combined with stronger rainfall events, flooding, and higher humidity – create the perfect environment for mold to flourish.
The result? More allergies, asthma attacks, and other respiratory health problems.
Extreme heat elevates the rate of death from heat-related illnesses, like heart attack and heat stroke.
Periods of extreme heat are directly related to higher rates of death from cardiovascular disease and heat stroke, particularly among the elderly and low-income communities who tend to be disproportionately affected by the impacts of all types of extreme weather.
It’s important to remember here that 2016 was the Earth’s hottest year on record – and the third year in a row to take that dubious honor.
Changing weather patterns can alter and expand the ranges of many vector-borne diseases, including Lyme disease, malaria, Zika virus, and dengue fever.
Vector-borne diseases are illnesses spread by insects and other organisms (the vectors) like mosquitoes, fleas, mites, or ticks. As our climate changes, the geographic areas hospitable to many vectors may shift or simply grow, changing the scope of disease outbreaks and introducing new illness to places they never previously existed.
Most recently, climate change is suspected to have played a role in the spread of the Zika virus into new areas.
Drought, flooding, heatwaves, and other climate-related extreme weather events can have fatal consequences.
What’s the connection between extreme weather and public health? Beyond the tragic fatalities that can result directly, extreme weather events can damage infrastructure, jeopardizing access to lifesaving care for extended periods of time, and can compromise water quality and food supplies.
Drought and heavy rainfall events can make drinking water vulnerable to contamination and can ruin agriculture, leading to increases in incidents of water-borne infections and diseases like cholera, as well as malnutrition and hunger when damaged farms fail to provide enough crops for the people who rely on them.
Denial of these scientific truths for political reasons only makes the need to discuss them in a major public forum all the more important.
The good news is Americans aren’t the sort to sit on the sidelines when a pressing-but-solvable threat looms large. And luckily, even as climate change remains a fraught political issue, Americans continue to trust their nurses, pharmacists, and medical doctors above most other sources, making the medical community uniquely well-positioned to convey a message about the importance of climate solutions.
So while alternative facts won’t cure life-threatening diseases or stop them from spreading faster than ever as the crisis continues, together, real climate scientists and medical professionals will.
We have a responsibility to the people we love to solve the climate crisis and protect public health and wellness for generations to come. We can be the generation that took on the greatest challenge humanity’s ever faced – and won.
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