Several U.N. reports on climate change have warned the world of the dramatic consequences that could befall the environment, the planet and human survival if increasing global warming trends continue. As stated in an editorial in the medical journal The Lancet, “Acting on the climate crisis is a clear, yet still neglected, priority for public health.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2020 was Earth’s second hottest for the past 140 years. Furthermore, 19 of the warmest years on record have occurred since 2000. The impact of these increasing global warming trends has been considerable on people of all ages, particularly the most vulnerable and those with underlying health conditions.
The estimated annual deaths attributed to climate change by the World Health Organization totaled around 150,000. Between the years 2030 to 2050, this number could rise to as high as 250,000 deaths. Most of those fatalities will result from heat stress, malnutrition, malaria and intestinal and respiratory infections, particularly in children from developing countries.
Climate change impacts negatively on social and environmental determinants of health such as clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food and safe shelter. The direct costs of failing health conditions caused or worsened as a result of climate change is estimated by the WHO at $2 billion to $4 billion by 2030.
It is possible that climate change may bring some benefits, such as fewer deaths during winter in some climates, as well as increased food production in areas free from the rigors of cold weather. However, some assessments of the consequences of global warming show that most of them will be negative.
The WHO reports that globally the number of weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. Natural disasters force people to move, which increases the likelihood of negative health effects from communicable diseases, mental health disorders and other ailments.
Ever more frequent heat waves increases the likelihood of illnesses and hospitalizations. In July, temperatures in California’s Death Valley hit above 54 degrees Celsius (130 degrees Fahrenheit), nearly beating the 56.6 record set in 1913. A study commissioned by the American Association of Retired Persons concluded that hospital admissions and emergency-room visits for kidney failure, urinary tract infections and other health problems increase significantly for older adults during heat waves.
Extremely high temperatures increase ground-level ozone concentrations that can lead to serious respiratory diseases such as asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Global warming also increases the number of infectious diseases carried by ticks, mosquitoes and other insects.
Rising sea levels and floods not only destroy homes, they can also wreak havoc on medical facilities and other health and social services. Flooding contaminates freshwater supplies, thus increasing the risk of water-borne diseases.
The tremendous challenge of climate change demands proper government policies to lower reliance on fossil fuels. The policies that must be implemented are known; what is necessary is the political will to put them into action. While most world leaders might recognize climate threats to people’s health, their current actions are deeply insufficient, states The Lancet medical journal.
It is necessary to increase individual resilience and be ready to face adverse events by boosting personal preparedness, strengthening social and family connections, and creating and/or strengthening supportive mental health environments. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that only by acting as a community can we solve global threats. Climate change will not only affect our health and quality of life; it threatens our survival.
Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and the author of “Environmental Impact on Child Health,” a publication of the Pan American Health Organization.
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