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The climate made news on Tuesday when the World Meteorological Association (WMO) announced its annual findings in its State of the Climate Report. Not only was 2016 the hottest year on record, (0.06˚C above the previous record set in 2015), the year also included record concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 400 parts per million. Global sea ice dropped more than 4 million km2 below average, a development the WMO calls “an unprecedented anomaly.”

Severe droughts, damaging hurricanes, flooding, and coral bleaching occurred around the world, coinciding with a powerful El Niño that confirmed what happens when nature interacts with human-caused climate change.

Though all these numbers can seem an abstract and distant threat for many of us, our warming planet is threatening our health and well-being. Evidence is emerging that climate change has significant impacts on human health, and researchers predict that further warming will have far-reaching health implications for populations worldwide.

2017: A Year of Climate Change and Health

According to the World Health Organization, “Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250, 000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.” They estimate the associated healthcare will cost an additional $2-4 billion.

In North America, some of the immediate health effects of a warmer climate are merely annoying, like an increase in seasonal allergies. With an extended blooming period, plants that produce common allergens have a longer growing season, while higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere promote greater pollen production.

Other effects of climate change are debilitating or even deadly, and they can touch the most privileged among us. In addition to the direct impact of natural disasters, medical help may not reach those who need it during severe weather events, when roads may become impassable. Power disruptions from weather can affect medical services as well, cutting off electricity to medical devices people rely on.

The organization Physicians for Social Responsibility contends that, “Climate change is one of the greatest health threats facing humanity in the 21st century.” Increasing awareness of climate change’s effect on public health has led the American Public Health Association (APHA) to declare 2017 the Year of Climate Change and Health. They have planned a year’s worth of awareness-raising events, beginning with a Climate and Health Meeting held in February, hosted by Al Gore and attended by leading public health experts. The APHA believes “the public health community plays a critical role” in developing “climate change strategies and interventions that protect people’s health.”

The Dangers of Extreme Heat

As we’ve experienced record heat, thousands have suffered the health effects of heat stress. In one particularly extreme heat wave in 2010, more than 55,000 Russians died, and the record-breaking European heat wave of 2003 claimed 35,000 lives.

Especially vulnerable are the elderly and very young, whose bodies are not as effective at regulating heat. Also at risk are pregnant women and people with medical conditions or on medication that makes extreme heat more dangerous. Urban populations may be especially hard hit, as cities trap heat and become “heat islands.” Those living in poverty in urban areas may not have access to air conditioning or other means of staying cool in extreme heat events.

Additionally, experts predict that increased heat will place limits on outdoor workers, which may, among other effects, reduce harvests and food security.

The Impact of Poor Air Quality

The air in a warmer climate contains more ozone, leading to more days with unsafe air quality. Ozone can inflame airways and worsen asthma and other lung problems.

The increase in airborne particulate matter common during prolonged droughts may also lead to rises in respiratory illness, and even cancer, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. A 2015 Lancet report on climate and health asserts that particulates in the air caused an additional seven million deaths globally in 2012 alone.

Additionally, experts predict that wildfires will continue to become more common and severe, putting additional pollutants into the air that affect respiratory health. Because winds carry particulates, people living far from the site of a fire or a coal plant may feel these effects as well.

Rise in Communicable Diseases

The range of insects that carry disease like the Zika virus will increase, as will the length of their active season, leading to more widespread infection. Dengue fever, Lyme disease, West Nile virus and other “vector-borne” diseases will likely become more common, spreading to areas where colder temperatures used to keep them in check.

Contaminated water supplies following flooding events may also lead to outbreaks of waterborne diseases like cholera. Extreme rainfall and storm surges can overwhelm water treatment facilities, making it difficult to remove contaminants and dangerous microbes from the water supply.

Climate Effects on Food and Water

Warming temperatures affect the ecology of bodies of water and the creatures that inhabit them. Warmer ocean temperatures elevate the concentrations of mercury in fish, while severe storms may increase levels of chemical contaminants in water, which may wind up in the food supply. Biological contaminants like bacteria and parasites also become more likely.

Warmer waters prompt algae blooms that release neurotoxins linked to brain damage and even death. A record-setting bloom in the summer of 2015 stretched 650 miles, from California to Alaska, causing fisheries to close because of extremely elevated levels of the neurotoxin domoic acid found in samples.

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Crops will also be significantly affected by climate change. Plants stressed by extreme heat or prolonged rains are more susceptible to disease. Droughts and extreme rain events may reduce yields or wipe out crops altogether, threatening food security and increasing food costs. Further, higher concentrations of carbon dioxide have been shown to reduce the nutritional content of many staple crops. A 2014 paper in the journal Nature found that the levels of protein, zinc and iron—nutrients critical to good health—dropped when grown in the CO2 concentrations predicted for the middle of the century.

Climate Change and Mental Health

Physical and mental health are often intertwined, and climate change will affect mental health as well. At the February Environment and Health Meeting, psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren noted that extreme weather events can cause “climate trauma,” resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, as well as increased incidence of substance abuse and domestic violence.

Reducing greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere may be the greatest public health intervention ever.
–Ari Bernstein, Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Chan School

Further, studies indicate that people with mental illness are more susceptible to the health effects of extreme heat and are three times as likely to die in a heat wave than those without mental illness.

Addressing the Health Challenges of a Changing Climate

The CDC has launched a Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative to help public health officials prepare for anticipated climate-related challenges to human health. Working with a variety of stakeholders, the CDC aims to help local health departments assess their vulnerabilities and develop effective strategies for managing the health effects of climate change. Ranging from monitoring and controlling insect populations to educating the public about issues like safety in extreme heat, local public health officials have much to prepare for.

Of course, drastically cutting global emissions could alleviate much unnecessary suffering for millions of people worldwide in the coming decades. Ari Bernstein, Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard Chan School, believes that “Reducing greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere may be the greatest public health intervention ever.”

Members of the medical community have begun promoting the health benefits of a lower-carbon society. When people walk or bike instead of drive, for instance, they’re not only reducing greenhouse gas pollution, but also protecting their cardiovascular health. Walkable, tree-filled communities support residents’ health while absorbing pollutants.

Did we need another reason to slash carbon emissions? If so, the public health crisis climate change is likely to launch may be a powerful one.

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