Your health (and you thought climate change was not about you)
New Year’s resolutions: chances are we’ve made — and broken — a few of them. And, chances are many of those resolutions have been related to our health: exercise more, eat better, stop smoking. But what if, in 2022, we resolved to improve our health by taking action against climate change?
According to recent data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA, 2021 marked the sixth warmest year on record. Why does this matter? Well, a warming climate directly affects the health of individuals, communities, businesses and economies alike.
Climate change, if nothing else, is a background condition of our lives that shapes our health. As a social determinant of health, it is as much a public health crisis as it is an environmental and economic one. Things like access to clean air, clean and safe drinking water, healthy food supplies and housing are directly impacting our quality of life, as well as physical, mental and emotional health.
We’re seeing the effects of climate change on peoples’ health already — from increased cases of asthma in children to more heat-related illnesses like heat stroke and vector-borne diseases like malaria. If you’re not seeing these repercussions in your community now, chances are you will soon.
Viewing climate change through the prism of health, here are five facts to consider:
1. Extreme temperature events will be more common. Rising greenhouse gas concentrations increase average temperatures and make extreme heat waves more frequent and more intense. In 2020, we saw the highest concentration in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas) on record, and the past six years were the warmest on record since 1880.
How does this affect your health? Cases of heatstroke, hypothermia and related conditions brought on by extreme temperature conditions are climbing, and in turn exacerbating existing cases of cardiovascular, pulmonary and renal disease. Highly susceptible populations such as children, the elderly and adults who work primarily outdoors are at the highest risk to be impacted by heatwaves.
2. Water systems will be contaminated. More frequent and intense precipitation increases runoff into our water systems, increasing the risk of water- and food-related illness. When it comes to acute gastrointestinal sickness, eight pathogens are responsible for 97 percent of waterborne illnesses and all eight are affected to some extent by climate.
Coastal communities are already seeing an impact, namely in those experiencing
greater algal bloom or “red tide.” Contaminated ocean water makes beach visits a risky affair and further contaminates seafood supplies. Moreover, heavy, extreme weather-runoff into inland water reservoirs can introduce harmful chemicals and pathogens into drinking water, which leads to a rise in diarrheal diseases, dehydration as well as death — and disproportionately impacts developing nations.
3. There will be a decrease in available food supply. Higher temperatures directly impact our food supply, making agricultural products susceptible to toxins brought on by pests and extreme weather events. Food shortages are forecasted to lead to a rise in world hunger, and diets will be unhealthier because of the diminished nutritional value of foods.
Pollination patterns, which are dependent on insects like bees and butterflies, are being radically altered, affecting both the feeding habits of insects and leading to weaker, less resilient crops.
4. Certain deadly diseases will become more common. Warmer temperatures are allowing some vector-borne diseases — illnesses carried and transmitted by insects or other animals — to move further north, exposing places like the U.S. to disease we have not previously encountered.
The loss of biodiversity and the encroachment of human civilization into new ecosystems accelerates this transmission. While the exact interaction between these diseases and hosts is challenging to predict, several vector-borne diseases such as West Nile virus and Chikungunya virus have appeared for the first time in recent years in the United States. Ticks, fleas and mosquitos carrying debilitating diseases like Lyme disease and malaria have seen their range expanded and their periods of activity lengthened over the past decade. Data indicate that other pathogens, such as the Zika virus, respond similarly to a temperature increase.
5. Mental and emotional health will be impacted. Beyond physiological illnesses, exposure to a worsening climate will have negative impacts on Americans’ mental and emotional health.
As local environments, cultures and ways of life come under threat, emotional stress and mental illness increase, affecting most directly our first responders and emergency workers
A study demonstrated that after a major response event, firefighters suffered rates of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from 13 to 18 percent for nearly four years. Traumatic events and frequent hostile weather can inflict lasting harms that run deeper than physical wounds as people are forced to move from their homes and communities.
Although our public awareness of it seems to have been slow, climate change impacts the health and wellbeing of each of us. And the burden will grow as our neighborhoods warm and our natural weather conditions become more extreme and violent. Our reluctance to act against climate change and to instill sound, bipartisan policy places yet another burden on already vulnerable and marginalized populations.
Ironically, those with the smallest carbon footprint suffer the most. Those who rely on public transportation, who do not have air conditioning even in our hottest months, who live multiple families to a home, who have underlying health conditions that make them increasingly susceptible to illnesses — these are the first whose lives and health will be disrupted if we fail to responsibly curb emissions and enact policies to reduce the human contributions to climate change.
Climate change is not just a social determinant of health. It is a political determinant of health. Policy decisions regarding climate change being made locally, nationally and internationally will have long-lasting repercussions on our health and that of our communities.
And while this issue sometimes feels too overwhelming for our individual actions to make a difference, small changes can add up to a big impact.
For 2022, consider becoming more active in your community’s environmental organizations, weigh in with your elected officials, reduce purchases of single use plastics and buy more sustainably sourced products. Consider focusing personal investments only in companies that are environmentally minded or make net-zero emissions commitments and make small changes at home like reducing energy consumption or reducing red meat in your diet.
What we do now matters.
Bill Frist, MD, is a heart transplant surgeon, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader (2003 to 2007) and Republican Senator from Tennessee (1995 to 2007), and founder of the Vanderbilt Transplant Center. He is the global board vice chair of The Nature Conservancy.