Even though the facts supporting climate change are indisputable, it is uncommon to find an average citizen who is genuinely, consistently, and actively worried about the possible effects. Even though we may be aware of the issues, in the grand scheme of things, little has been done to even begin to rectify the situation. In the back of the minds of many Americans may lie the assurance that, “This won’t affect me.” While it might be believed that the more serious results of climate change won’t come until long after the current occupants of the planet are gone, studies show that detrimental effects will be felt by as early as 2050 if immediate changes are not implemented.
Climate change is defined as a long-term shift in weather conditions and extreme weather patterns (8). An overwhelming percentage of environmental scientists agree that human-caused climate change is real and happening in our world today, and the effects are disastrous. Such meteorological factors as temperatures, cloudiness, precipitation frequency and intensity, and wind speeds are directly affected by climate change (2). Impacts can be direct, such as heat waves, extreme storms, forest fires, floods, or droughts, or indirect through intermediate effects of climate change, such as air pollution, agricultural losses, changing patterns of disease, changing economies, and changes in social structure or mental health due to migration and conflict (3, 5).
These catastrophic effects are directly affecting all of us today, and they will intensify greatly sooner than may be expected, affecting our physical health as well as our economic well-being as a national and world economy. Analyses show that by as early as 2030 we will see a rise in ozone levels over much of the United States, which could increase the average daily maximum temperature by as much as 1-4°C (2). It is estimated that this could cause up to some thousands of additional ozone-related premature deaths and illnesses per year, which would lead to hundreds of millions to tens of billions of U.S. dollars lost (2). Ozone-related acute mortality in the United States is predicted to rise by as much as 5 percent from 1990 to 2050 (5). Based on population density, larger cities are the most vulnerable to effects of climate change, though different projections have different predictions for climate change effects. One study, taking into account several factors in different scenarios, predicts that Los Angeles and Dallas are most at risk. Meanwhile, another study predicts the greatest temperature increase to be in the midwest, with the most deaths in cities like Chicago (2). Basically, no one should feel like they will be unaffected by the negative impacts of climate change, because we can’t be sure what will actually happen.
Climate change is also able to directly affect the individual human body. Heat stress occurs when heat is received in excess of that which the body can tolerate without physiological impairment (4). The result of heat stress is known as heat strain, which, in addition to impairing health, can reduce human performance and work capacity (4). The elderly and those whose health is already impaired are especially vulnerable to heat stroke, but any who perform heavy labor in hot conditions are also at risk (4). All possible scenarios of climate change include significant increases in risks of extreme heat, and there is strong evidence that over a wide range of environments around the world there has already been an increase in heat-related deaths due to climate change (5). Climate change from 1975 to 2050 will cause a reduction in work hours available in all regions of the globe, as a yearly increase in heat exposure during the seasons that are already the hottest is a feature of climate change (4). Local loss of work capacity during daylight working hours is already at 10% in some places, and within the century, 30–40% of annual daylight hours will have temperatures too high for work to be carried out in certain locations (4). This not only increases risks for workers in these places, but also greatly reduces potential productivity, thereby negatively impacting a country’s economy. In turn, this can cause more health issues, like decreased nutrition. In particular, low and middle income countries rely on physical work from farmers for up to 80% of total farming energy input, meaning they will be severely affected by work days shortened by unbearable heat (4). By 2030, labor and productivity loss due to climate change is projected to cause a global GDP loss of 2.1 trillion USD (4). Although low-income tropical countries where heavy physical work is common and the hot season is long are the most vulnerable to increases in heat stress and strain, more temperate places, including the United States, are likely to be affected, with the southeast and southwest being the most vulnerable regions (4). In fact, about 30 agricultural workers in the United States already die from heat stroke annually (4).
Another possible effect of elevated temperatures are heat waves. Heat waves are defined as five consecutive days of daily minimum night-time temperatures more than 5°C greater than the presently observed patterns of daily minimums (3). As early as 2003, increased and intensified heat waves have been observed. During two weeks of extreme heat in France in August 2003, over 1,000 deaths of people between the ages of 20 and 70, mostly men, were attributed to the heat, and it is possible that this heat wave caused as many as 70,000 deaths (4). Heat waves can also cause forest fires, which increase mortality directly by fires, and indirectly by the associated air pollution (5).
Infectious diseases transmitted by insects are especially vulnerable to changes in temperature and precipitation patterns (8). In order for an infectious disease to survive, it needs a host and a particular transmission environment, and longterm climate warming is on track to expand the geographic locations in which diseases can successfully survive and affect the human population (8). Incidence of such diseases as dengue fever, malaria, and cholera is expected to be affected by warmer temperatures (5). Climate has a great impact on the range and reproductive rates of mosquitos carrying malaria, along with the lifestyle of the protozoa responsible for the disease (5). Additionally, an increase in the intensity of sunlight will create more favorable conditions for multiplication of some pathogens, such as those that cause cholera in humans (8). Extreme weather, including El Niño events, can lead to an increase in water contamination that is the cause of cholera transmission, along with an increase in air pollution (5). Since more extreme weather events will occur as the planet warms, these impacts will escalate. Finally, stronger winds can push disease-carrying insects to places they may not have ordinarily been found (8). This could increase the prevalence of diseases like malaria in certain areas that are unprepared to handle this increase. It is estimated that right now one-sixth of all the illness and disability suffered worldwide are caused by vector-borne diseases, which are the reason for over one million deaths every year (1). We can expect an increase in deaths caused by such diseases as climate change, and its effects, intensify.
Increases in droughts will decrease the availability of fresh drinking water for populations worldwide, along with an increase in food insecurity due to sensitivity to weather changes of crops and livestock. This will decrease food affordability and availability, ultimately increasing rates of malnutrition in more impoverished regions (5). By 2050, it is predicted that we will see worldwide per-person reductions of 3.2 percent of global food availability, 4.0 percent of fruit and vegetable consumption, and 0.7 percent of red meat consumption (6). In 2010, the Global Burden of Disease reported that the greatest number of deaths worldwide were caused by imbalanced diets, such as those low in fruits and vegetables, and in fact, twice as many climate-related deaths are due to reductions in fruit and vegetable consumption than increases in underweight persons (6). When taking into account expected levels of climate change in 2050, projections of the global food availability per person show a net difference of -388 kcal per person per day from when compared to availability with no additional climate change (6). This would be a 99 kcal decrease overall from 2010 to 2050, and is expected to cause a 28% increase in avoidable deaths from the 2010 levels (6). In these projections, reductions in fruit and vegetable consumption lead to 534,000 climate-related deaths, and an increase in the number of underweight people lead to an additional 266,000 (6).
An immediate response is crucial to maintaining the Earth as we know it. In order to prevent a rise in the average global temperature of over 2°C, we must keep the total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions below 2900 billion tons by the end of the century (5). We must also adapt our working practices, implement mechanization of heavy labor and air cooling technologies to improve ventilation, and find new methods of passive cooling, such as external shading and shutters, which will take time to install (4, 7). It is also important to invest in research on climate change and public health, to strengthen health systems in low-income and middle-income countries, and to work on a phase-out program for coal as an energy source. The latter will protect cardiovascular and respiratory health, while also reducing air pollution from the transport, agriculture, and energy sectors. These policies will also encourage a transition in cities in support of lifestyles that are healthy for the individual and for the planet through the development of highly energy-efficient buildings, ease of low-cost active transportation, and increased access to green spaces. Another smart step would be the development of an international agreement to support countries in transitioning to a low-carbon economy (5). The best way to prepare for an increase in vector-borne diseases is to strengthen disease control efforts that are already in place in order to bring down current disease rates and manage possible short-term risks (1). It is completely naïve to believe that anyone alive today will be unaffected by climate change. We must all come together and work as a global community to save the defenseless planet that we are on track to destroy.
- Campbell-Lendrum, Diarmid, Lucien Manga, Magaran Bagayoko, and Johannes Sommerfeld. “Climate change and vector-borne diseases: what are the implications for public health research and policy?” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 370, no. 1665 (February 16, 2015). Accessed February 20, 2018. http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/370/1665/20130552.short.
- Fann, Neal, Christopher G. Nolte, Patrick Dolwick, Tanya L. Spero, Amanda Curry Brown, Sharon Phillips, and Susan Anenberg. “The geographic distribution and economic value of climate change-related ozone health impacts in the United States in 2030.” Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association 65, no. 5 (2014): 570-80. doi:10.1080/10962247.2014.996270.
- “Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health.” British Dental Journal 219, no. 2 (2015): 67. doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.2015.561.
- Kjellstrom, Tord, David Briggs, Chris Freyberg, Bruno Lemke, Matthias Otto, and Olivia Hyatt. “Heat, Human Performance, and Occupational Health: A Key Issue for the Assessment of Global Climate Change Impacts.” Annual Review of Public Health 37, no. 1 (2016): 97-112. doi:10.1146/annurev-publhealth-032315-021740.
- Mciver, Lachlan, Rokho Kim, Alistair Woodward, Simon Hales, Jeffery Spickett, Dianne Katscherian, Masahiro Hashizume, Yasushi Honda, Ho Kim, Steven Iddings, Jyotishma Naicker, Hilary Bambrick, Anthony J. Mcmichael, and Kristie L. Ebi. “Health Impacts of Climate Change in Pacific Island Countries: A Regional Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptation Priorities.” Environmental Health Perspectives 124, no. 11 (2015). doi:10.1289/ehp.1509756.
- Springmann, Marco, Daniel Mason-Dcroz, Sherman Robinson, Tara Garnett, H. Charles J Godfray, Douglas Gollin, Mike Rayner, Paola Ballon, and Peter Scarborough. “Global and regional health effects of future food production under climate change: a modelling study.” The Lancet 387, no. 10031 (2016): 1937-946. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(15)01156-3.
- Vardoulakis, Sotiris, Chrysanthi Dimitroulopoulou, John Thornes, Ka-Man Lai, Jonathon Taylor, Isabella Myers, Clare Heaviside, Anna Mavrogianni, Clive Shrubsole, Zaid Chalabi, Michael Davies, and Paul Wilkinson. “Impact of climate change on the domestic indoor environment and associated health risks in the UK.” Environment International 85 (2015): 299-313. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2015.09.010.
- Wu, Xiaoxu, Yongmei Lu, Sen Zhou, Lifan Chen, and Bing Xu. “Impact of climate change on human infectious diseases: Empirical evidence and human adaptation.” Environment International 86 (January 2016): 14-23. Accessed February 20, 2018. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412015300489.