climate change: an ominous health threat

I think we can all agree that climate change is altering our planet in a dangerous away… unless you’re a climate change denier that is (in which case, the burden of proof is on you to provide contrary evidence as 97% of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is real). Today, climate change predications made by scientists in the past have begun to take effect with melting arctic sea ice and shrinking glaciers, the gradual acidification of seawater, and changes to finely-tuned ecosystems.

Often, when we think of climate change, we think of the impact it has on our environment. However, the consequences of climate change are much more far-reaching, especially when we consider human health. But, what does climate change have to do with our health? Quite a lot, in fact, because the health of the planet determines the conditions for our health. So much so that Margaret Chen, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), declared climate change as the defining issue for public health in the 21st century.

Source: What on Earth? by Neil Wagner

Climate change impacts human health in a multitude way of ways, via direct and indirect paths, which ultimately increase our risk of injury, illness, disease, and death. Direct health effects involve extreme weather events such as floods, tsunamis, wildfires, droughts, and heat waves, which have gradually increased in frequency due to human-caused climate change. Such events have the capacity to dislocate, injure, and/or prematurely kill thousands of people – consider the 2003 heatwave in Europe, the 2011 tsunami in Japan, and the 2016 wildfire in Canada.

Source: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (June 2015)

Extreme weather events impact the food we eat, water we drink, air we breathe, and environment we live in. As such, the indirect health effects of climate change are plentiful, some of which include:

Increased variability in rainfalls could result in droughts that will diminish food production.

Chronic Diseases
Rising temperatures will cause changes to our air quality due to increased air pollution caused by mold, fungi, or ground level ozone among other pollutants, resulting in more people suffering from chronic diseases (e.g. asthma and heart disease).

Rising temperatures and higher CO2 concentrations will elongate allergy season and increase production of plant-based allergens (e.g. pollen).

Mental Health
Trauma associated with extreme weather events could cause stress, depression, and anxiety disorders (e.g. PTSD from losing a home or family members).

Infectious Diseases
Increased rainfall and higher temperatures will increase the transmission of infectious vector-borne diseases (e.g. Lyme disease and West Nile Virus) as their geographic range expands and transmission season lengthens. Infectious diseases can also spread via our water and food (e.g. cholera, e. coli, and salmonella).

Projected Changes in Tick Habitat in Eastern North America (Ticks spread Lyme Disease) Source: The National Climate Assessment

The impact of climate change is multifaceted as it involves disruptions to several complex systems: the natural (ecological) system, the physical (built) system, and our social systems. The interaction of these systems determines the extent of the impact that climate change will have on different people, communities, and nations. Thus, not everyone is at equal risk.

Unfortunately, this means that the burden of climate change falls on the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable people of the world as it will amplify existing biophysical stressors (e.g. soil erosion) and social stressors (e.g. poverty). While people residing in developing nations will experience an unfair burden of these risks, vulnerable groups from developed nations will also be impacted, including: chronically ill individuals, the elderly, the young, disabled people, pregnant women, and people with a low socioeconomic status.

Source: WHO

According to the WHO, approximately 250,000 additional deaths are expected every year between 2030 and 2050 due to the myriad of climate change health effects. As such, I believe it’s now time to start discussing the ways in which we could address these almost disastrous outcomes, as the cost of not addressing climate change could be more than the cost of curbing its effects. After all, it’s not like we can pack up and move to Earth 2.0 anytime soon. Currently, climate change remains a low priority for Canadians and not everyone is convinced that it will impact their lives. This attitude is reflected in our preparedness to deal with the changes of climate change, as outlined in this report. Altogether, better planning is needed to protect our communities with a focus on investments in infrastructure and public health strategies, which currently remain weak.

This blog post just scratches the surface of the health issues associated with climate change. Everything on this planet is finely balanced, so any change could ultimately alter how we live and the lives of future generations in a drastic and permanent manner. Moving forward, it’s up to us to collectively move in a direction that will help solve our coming problems.


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