Guest Blog: Climate Change Is a Health Emergency
By: American Lung Association editorial staff
The science is clear: human activity, namely the burning of fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas, is largely responsible for the warming climate. This is consequently having an enduring impact on health, in both big ways and small. From wildfires in California to flooding in Kentucky to Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico, the extreme weather events dominating recent headlines illustrate how climate change is being felt in every corner of the country. Read on to learn about just some of the ways climate change is affecting people’s health and how health professionals can take action.
- Climate change is a health emergency.
Climate change is harming health now, and time is running out to address and avert even worse impacts. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the window is closing to limit Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius; the IPPC found that, if global warming exceeds this temperature, human and natural systems will experience additional severe risks.
- Climate change is making it more difficult to clean up air pollution.
Not only is heat itself a threat to health, but warmer temperatures aid in the formation of smog, or ground-level ozone, which is a dangerous air pollutant that makes it more difficult to breathe. Additionally, prolonged drought stoked by climate change is making wildfires much more intense and frequent. Wildfires are a major source of fine particle pollution, also known as PM2.5, that can cause shortness of breath, asthma attacks, and even premature death.
- Climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of severe storms and flooding, which can significantly affect those living with chronic health conditions.
As seen in many of parts of the U.S., severe storms and floods have myriad short and long-term consequences for health. For example, if electricity goes out, this can impact critical resources, such as access to clean water and working sewage systems. For individuals living with chronic health conditions, this can create an especially unsafe situation that could lead to inability to pick up needed medications, use vital medical equipment, or see a medical provider or caregiver.
- Climate change is increasing allergens and risk for certain diseases.
Hotter weather is contributing to longer pollen seasons and higher pollen counts, which affects people living with allergies and asthma. There are also certain vector-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, that are becoming more widespread in part due to the changing climate.
- Climate change affects mental health.
Not surprisingly, living through a severe weather event, such as a wildfire or flood, can be incredibly stressful and traumatic. Aside from natural disasters, there is growing research that shows a link between heat and negative mental health outcomes, such as mood and anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and vascular dementia, along with increased use of emergency mental health services. Furthermore, high temperatures can affect daily life, such as by making it more difficult to sleep or not being able to exercise or spend time outside.
There is also a growing segment of the population, particularly among young people, who experience distress related to concerns about the effects of climate change. This is known as “climate anxiety” or “eco-anxiety”.
- While climate change affects everyone’s health, people who have low incomes and some communities of color experience higher risk.
Certain groups are more at risk based on their residence and place of work, including living in neighborhoods with higher pollution levels or increased difficulty responding to extreme weather events.
How Health Professionals Can Learn More and Take Action
The time to act on climate change is now, and medical and health voices are critical to advocating for patients’ needs.
One uplifting piece of news on the climate front is the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, a landmark law that represents the largest action the U.S. has ever taken to tackle climate change. Health professionals can help the American Lung Association by signing this petition that calls on Congress to fully fund the agencies responsible for this historic piece of legislation.
Additionally, health professionals can learn about climate change and health by signing up for the American Lung Association’s Health Professionals for Clean Air and Climate Action newsletter. Join thousands of health professionals nationwide who receive this monthly newsletter that includes updates, news, resources, and ways to take action.