You know that climate change threatens the planet. But you might not know that it threatens your health, too.
Remind me what’s going on with Captain Planet.
It’s getting (too) hot in here. In 2018, the world's top climate scientists said the global average temp would likely reach 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052. That’s the lower threshold countries are aiming for with the Paris Agreement. And passing it could further tip the balance in already mounting extreme weather events (think: that winter storm in Texas) and lead to increased food insecurity and loss of species like polar bears and sea turtles. In 2021, we got closer. Reaching around 2 degrees above those levels. And a UN report now puts the world on track to reach 4.9 degrees higher this century.
Human activity is largely to blame. The kicker: we’re also going to suffer from this temp increase. A WHO assessment found that climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 alone, with low-income people hit hardest.
Clearly, this affects our collective health. Here’s how it might uniquely affect you.
Do you have a pre-existing condition or illness?
Climate change exacerbates the symptoms and risks of a lot of conditions and their treatments.
Asthma...Pollen and other aeroallergen levels (airborne substances that can trigger allergic reactions) are higher in extreme heat. Cue more cases and more frequent bouts of asthma, which already affects around 300 million people worldwide.
Other lung issues...Decreased lung function, inflammation of the lungs, and lung cancer are all potential side effects of climate change. That’s thanks to increased pollution in the air and reduced air quality. It may also put people at higher risk of chest pain, heart problems, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Medication challenges...Climate change may make it harder to store medicine at its ideal temperature. Also, many medications can already cause heat intolerance, Aka the body’s inability to cool itself — and climate change will only make that worse. Extreme temps can also change how certain medications work in the body.
Are you pregnant or trying to conceive?
Add climate change to your long list of things you’re probably already worrying about. Because...
Two studies out of Houston and Brisbane, Australia, found that babies were more likely to spontaneously be born prematurely when temperatures were at their hottest.
Hotter temperatures have also been linked to rapid weight gain during a baby’s first year of life and an increase in young children being admitted to ERs.
Other research has found that moms who lived near wildfires in the month before conception were twice as likely to have babies with a birth defect called gastroschisis. (Mainly because of the pollutants that got into the air, water, and soil, researchers say.)
And speaking of pollution, breathing it in over time can increase the risk of a baby having low birth weight or being stillborn. This risk is even greater for Black mothers and babies, in part because they’re more likely to live in urban areas with higher temps and more air pollution.
If you’re TTC, you may want to cool it, literally. Early research shows that pollution and rising temps could make it harder for couples to get pregnant. That’s because sperm production falls in hot weather.
Do you live in a coastal area or near a river or stream?
The ripple effects of climate change have a wide range of consequences.
Flooding...Extreme weather, rising sea levels, and increased precipitation from climate change all contribute to places going under water. According to the EPA, more than 8.6 million Americans live in areas susceptible to coastal flooding. Even if you don’t live in a coastal area, you could still be vulnerable to flooding from climate change — flash floods caused by heavy rains can happen anywhere.
Property damage...In California alone, around half a million people and $100 billion worth of coastal property and infrastructure are at risk of damage (thanks to storms and flooding) over the next century.
Waterborne diseases....Climate change is projected to increase them. That’s because flooding can spread chemicals, sewage, and disease agents.
Is “wildfire season” on your calendar?
For certain areas, the season could stretch longer and hotter than ever before.
Higher temps can lead to droughts. And droughts can lead to fires. While people cause more than 80% of US wildfires, climate change is like the kindling — drier conditions and warmer temps can help fires spread and make them harder to put out.
Some models estimate that, between 1984 and 2015, the amount of forest area burned by wildfires was twice what would have burned if human-caused climate change hadn’t occurred.
And where there’s fire, there’s wildfire smoke — a mix of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and various volatile organic compounds. Smoke exposure has been known to increase respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalization and has been associated with hundreds of thousands of deaths annually. Climate change is only going to fuel these flames.
Do you experience food insecurity?
For many, climate change will make the struggle to put food on the table even harder.
A decreased agriculture supply is expected to lead to increased food prices for important crops like rice, wheat, maize, and soybeans. By 2050, this could increase child undernutrition in low-income developing countries by 20% compared to a world with no climate change.
Food insecurity leads to a greater risk of malnutrition, obesity, and chronic illness — and climate events are expected to push more and more people into this at-risk group.
Do you think you’re safe from climate change?
Think again. Let us count the (other) ways you could be affected.
Nutrition...Climate change is bad for many crops. And what’s bad for crops is bad for feeding people. Rising temps cause both droughts that starve crops and precipitation events that damage them. Also, the nutritional value of certain foods may decrease due to climate change. And increased carbon dioxide levels in the air have been associated with decreased levels of nutrients in staple crops like rice and wheat.
Water...Thirsty for some good news? Unfortunately, we’re coming up dry. Higher temps make water dry up at a higher rate. And in some cases, that leads to heavy rainfall, and ultimately, a polluted water supply if excess runoff contaminates waterways.
Mental health...Trauma from floods, droughts, and heatwaves can lead to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and suicide. Job loss in industries affected by climate change — like energy, agriculture, food and beverage, and tourism — can also negatively affect mental health.
Allergies...More heat can mean longer allergy seasons and more respiratory illness. In addition, high amounts of rain can increase mold, fungi, and indoor air pollutants at home.
Believing that climate change affects the Earth but doesn’t affect your health is like thinking that a rotting foundation doesn’t impact the people living in a house. You can only take cover for so long. Here are some ways to do your part for planet earth: vote for politicians with policies that align with your climate goals, start recycling, make your work-life routine more green, and think before you click.
Updated April 20, 2022, to reflect new info on climate change goals.
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