Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health: Challenges and Solutions
By Olivia Hakan
At this point, everyone in the US knows something about climate change; a change in the earth’s climate and atmosphere that leads to an increase in climate variability that is in excess of earth’s natural variation. However, climate change is rarely, if ever, associated with human health. The impacts of climate change on human health is a field that is just beginning to become relevant in the scientific community, but is developing quickly, as there are already numerous findings that make the effects of climate change more personal than ever. Though the increase of greenhouse gases, and consequent warming of the earth’s average temperature does not seem like it would have much of an effect on climate, it has the potential to destroy ecosystems, damage societies, and negatively impact individual human health.
As we see climate change progress, we also see destruction of usable land and infrastructure, lower air quality, higher hospitalization and death rates, and an increase in pathogens, illnesses and disease. Increased average temperatures will lead to more cases of extreme heat in warm regions of the earth leading to heat related deaths, exacerbation of physical disabilities or illnesses, longer allergy seasons and the spread of vector borne illnesses. The frequency and severity of drought will increase in dry areas of the earth leading to wildfires and destruction of usable land, creating food insecurity, which in developing parts of the world has been known to lead to violence. Additionally, the smoke created by wildfires is full of small particles and harmful chemicals that can get into our lungs and cause irritation, and respiratory illnesses. And, in many parts of the world, precipitation will become less frequent but more intense creating more powerful storms that lead to flooding, damaged infrastructure, negatively impacted mental health, and the spread of waterborne pathogens and disease (Levy).
These damaging effects will have the potential to impact everyone worldwide. However, there are certain populations that are more vulnerable to these events. In general, these groups are children, elderly, disabled people, outdoor workers, city residents, those with preexisting medical conditions, low income communities, and communities that rely heavily on their surroundings. This is due to their reliance on others, low level of resources, and high level of exposure, among other things.
The list of negative effects of climate change is long, and the range of people affected is wide, so even if you do not fall into any specific category, someone you know and love probably does. So the question is: how do we keep humans and the earth healthy? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Some of the damage we have caused is irreversible, and multitudes of people do not believe in or care about the environment. However, even with these challenges there are still many things that can be done to help. Fortunately, many of the solutions to climate change also improve human health. Some of these solutions include: switching to renewable energy, driving less, reducing meat and dairy intake, and using sustainable building techniques.
Converting to renewable energy will not only help to decrease, or mitigate, climate change, but will also improve air quality (Kammen). If people switched from driving to work to walking, biking, or taking public transportation it would decrease emissions and increase fitness and health levels. Eating less meat and dairy, despite what the general public believes, is a healthier diet, and will decrease resources needed to raise and slaughter animals, and the GHG emissions that come from them (Biello). Buildings account for a large portion of the world’s energy use and greenhouse gas emission and emerging technology has the potential to greatly improve the quality of new buildings in terms of both mitigating climate change and improving human health (Kammen). For example, the Living Building Challenge is a new building standard where qualified buildings are “net positive energy, net positive water, and net positive waste...creating a positive impact on the human and natural systems that interact with them” (International Living Future Institute).
All of these actions certainly will help reduce climate change, however, possibly the most important thing for anyone to do is to educate themselves and others, and to do what they can to help the environment. “Occupant behavior...can double the energy consumption of a building. Similarly, driving style can influence a vehicle’s fuel consumption by up to 20%. A lack of information, or selfishness, may lead us to make poor energy choices, even when they are not in our individual and collective best interest” (Kammen).
Levy, B. S., & Patz, J. (2015). Climate change and public health. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
International Living Future Institute. (2018, April 20). Programs Overview. Retrieved from https://living-future.org/programs-overview/
Kammen, D. M., & Sunter, D. A. (2016). City-integrated renewable energy for urban sustainability. Science,352(6288), 922-928. doi:10.1126/science.aad9302
Biello, D. (2007, November 26). 10 Solutions for Climate Change. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/10-solutions-for-climate-change/