From allergies to infectious disease, climate change is seriously taking a toll on our health—and a new report says it's only getting worse
Climate change has become a staple in news feeds over the past decade, but this week The Lancet reported that our concern now goes way beyond polar bears stranded on ice caps, all the way to our doctors' offices: An international commission on health and climate found that while the large-scale effects of global warming have been much publicized, people aren't yet thinking about how these changes will affect their personal lives and bodies—a problem the commission intends to fix through the report and a panel discussion made up of internationally renowned experts in fields ranging from medicine to engineering.
"Climate change is a medical emergency and it thus demands an emergency response," says Hugh Montgomery, Ph.D., director of the University College of London's (UCL) Institute for Human Health and Performance and co-chair of the commission. And the rest of the panel didn't mince words either: Fellow co-chairs added that climate change could reverse all the health gains from economic development we've seen in recent years, and also compared the scale and importance of this effect to the global fight against HIV and tobacco—combined.
The commission identified eight major ways climate change is hurting our health right now—all of which will continue to worsen exponentially in the coming decades. Thanks to an increase in storms, droughts, floods, and heatwaves, the panel warns to expect even more increases in malnutrition, allergies, cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases, injuries, respiratory diseases, poisoning, and mental illness.
"Many Americans think of climate change as something far out and distant. They don't realize how much it impacts them personally already," said Perry Sheffield, M.D., researcher and physician at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, in a livestream press event. (Read these 7 Symptoms You Should Never Ignore.)
Most of us think of climate change in terms of catastrophic events like hurricanes and tornadoes, but it's the heat that most concerns Ian Hamilton, Ph.D., of the UCL Energy Institute and co-author of the paper published by the commission. "There are physiological limits to how much work we can do in heat, which would affect people who work outdoors, like farm or construction workers," he says. "But heat stress would also affect elderly, low income, and other vulnerable people." He points to the 2003 heat wave in Europe, during which tens of thousands of people died because they lived in inefficient housing. He adds that heatwaves also bring on droughts and kill crops which can cause illness, malnutrition, and death for years afterward.
However, one of the study's most surprising findings is how profoundly people's mental health is affected under major climate events. There is a consistant rise in mental disorders like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder after climate events both big and small, Hamilton says."There is a severe feeling of helplessness when put under a condition where a person loses their home or, worse, their family members due to catastrophic events—events that we expect to become more frequent if climate change is not addressed," he adds.
All these changes are happening sooner than you think, with doctors already seeing health problems directly linked to the changes in the environment. "The strong majority of respiratory physicians said they are already seeing effects of climate change on their patients," said George Thurston, M.D., a professor at the NYU School of Medicine's Department of Environmental Medicine and panel member, during a livestream press event. Droughts, heat, increased pollen and air pollution—all a result of changes in the environment—are causing respiratory and cardiac issues, he explains. (Find out The Best and Worst Foods for Allergies.)
But there is a ray of hope in the commission's report. "I was also surprised how people can feel empowered when this issue is framed as a health problem ," Hamilton says, adding that the actions we can take to address climate change will result in health benefits for us here and now, but also for our children's future.
Still, with a problem as paramount as climate change, it can be easy to feel like there's nothing we can do now to fix it. Hamilton, however, says there are simple steps that we each can do to limit the impact of climate change, like becoming personally prepared for emergencies and getting educated on environmental protection. The panel also suggests framing lifestyle changes as health-friendly habits instead of environment-friendly habits if you like. For example burning fewer fossil fuels will help air pollution but it will also reduce your asthma and allergy symptoms. Walking and cycling will not only cut pollution but will also reduce your risk of obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, and stroke. Adding green spaces in cities will make the area resilient to extreme weather while mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, but it'll also provide you with a beautiful place to walk your dog.
At the end of the day, it shouldn't be an argument about whether or not climate change is "real" or if we caused it, but rather how to best help the people living on the planet. "Even if you don't think climate change is real, all of these changes have real health benefits," Sheffield says. It turns out that what's good for our Mother Earth is also good for her children.