The World Health Organization states that climate change is “the greatest health challenge of the 21st century.” The pope has called climate change the most important moral issue of our time. I am 75 years of age this year and I feel the most important thing I can do with the rest of my life is to teach about climate change and health.
Climate change causes a broad range of adverse health effects, and it particularly amplifies existing health threats among the economically disadvantaged, urban dwellers, children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the chronically ill.
Levels of carbon dioxide are rising at the fastest rate in 66 million years, mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels, which contribute to four of the five top causes of mortality in the United States – heart disease, cancer, stroke, and COPD.
Health Impacts of Climate Change
Climate change has adverse effects on health that are both specific and general. Specifically, increased ozone and particulate air pollution are linked to asthma attacks, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.
Generally, extreme weather destabilizes communities. Warmer oceans produce more water vapor, and warmer air holds more moisture. As more frequent and more sustained storms pass over communities, particularly poorer ones, they increase economic stress and poverty, reduce access to essential health care, and increase risk for mental health concerns such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, aggressive behavior, and relational and social unrest.
While some areas are too wet, others are too dry. The wildfires in Canada and the Western United States are creating dangerous smoke that spreads for thousands of miles, even reaching Lancaster.
Vector-borne diseases are increasing because of milder winters, longer and warmer summers and growing seasons, and expanding geographic ranges for ticks, mosquitoes, and other disease-carrying insects. In our area alone, the growing season has increased by more than 2 weeks since 1970. Obviously, this increases the intensity of allergy seasons. The number of people with seasonal allergies is predicted to more than double in our area by 2050.
The structural racism that permeates our civil society makes the impact of climate change fall disproportionately on people and communities of color, and indigenous people. The effects include:
• Greater harm from extreme weather events due to inferior health care and resources for community resilience;
• Pollution of lands, waters, neighborhoods and communities due to operations of the fossil fuel and mining industries;
• Greater exposure to air pollution from vehicles, industrial facilities, coal burning and other sources;
• Exacerbation of the cumulative impacts of structural racism that already work through all the social determinants of health to expand inequalities, increase health care costs, and reduce the overall resilience of society as a whole.
These problems create extreme disparities in health for the disadvantaged, including a shorter life span; higher infant and maternal mortality; and a higher incidence of asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other diseases.
Health Co-benefits from Mitigating Climate Change
Health care accounts for nearly one-fifth of the GDP. Despite the social, economic, and political barriers to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, the health benefits from doing so will create offsetting savings estimated at 26% to 1050%.1 Global average monetized health co-benefits from avoided mortality are projected to range from $50 to $380 per ton of carbon dioxide removed and exceed abatement costs in 2030 and 2050.
Read the entire article on Lancaster General Hospital • Fall 2021 • Vol. 16 – No. 3