A Russian woman wears a face mask to protect herself from acrid smoke while walking in central Moscow on August 9, 2010. Air pollution from a heatwave-fueled forest fire smog caused hundreds of extra deaths each day compared to a normal period. Photograph: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images
As a climate scientist, I spend time and energy studying how fast the Earth is warming and what is causing the warming. This knowledge helps us predict what the future will look like. But, what most people are interested in is, “how will it affect me?”
Some impacts we are pretty clear about, like the impacts related to sea level rise, increased storms and heavy precipitation, and increased drought and heat waves – particularly the impacts these events have on the economy. But climate change will affect us personally as well (by personally, I mean our physical person).
In fact, climate change is already affecting personal human health around the world. This subject was the focus of a summary report just published by the Medical Society Consortium. What I really liked about this report is that it breaks down some of the key impacts by region. Unfortunately, the report is limited in scope to the USA. However, the general conclusions and trends can be illuminating for people outside the USA as well.
What was also welcome is that this report was prepared by physicians (not climate scientists) of major medical societies and the conclusions are based on the best available and current information of both the climate and health fields.
So what did they find? Perhaps most importantly they find that climate change is already affecting our health. This isn’t a future problem for the next generation. It is a problem that is present and growing. They also report that some populations are more susceptible to climate change effects. Among the most vulnerable groups are children, student athletes, pregnant women, elderly, people with chronic health conditions, and the impoverished. A third key takeaway is that the problems will get much worse as climate change continues.
The study reports that if you live on the West Coast, wildfires, extreme temperatures, poorer air quality, extreme weather events, and agricultural risks are occurring. On the East Coast, you can add vector-borne diseases as a risk area. The central USA region is also similarly being affected.
As you dig deeper into the report, you learn about how these various climate-related features are affecting health. Each factor is dealt with by three questions: 1) What is happening? 2) How does it harm our health? 3) Who is being harmed?
For instance, with respect to extreme weather, the report correctly notes that the frequency and severity of some weather events such as heavy downpours, floods, droughts, and major storms are increasing. This harms our health because these events can cause direct injury and death as well as displacement. Extreme weather can also harm vital infrastructure like communication systems, homes, and reduce the availability of clean water and food. Finally, extreme weather can lead to acute outbreaks of infectious disease while at the same time reducing access to health care.
Air pollution is another example area. Climate change is affecting air quality in many ways, including increasing chemical reactions in surface air (air we breathe), increasing pollen, and leading to more forest fires. Lower air quality obviously affects people with breathing problems (such as asthma and allergies). It can prolong the pollen seasons and worsen allergy symptoms. Less obvious effects like increased humidity and more heavy rainfalls can exacerbate air-quality problems indoors through mold growth for instance.
One issue I was not aware of was the threat of climate change to nutrition. Increases in carbon dioxide actually result in a lowered nutritional value of grown food such as wheat, rice, barley, and potatoes. This occurs because plants produce less protein and more sugars/starches in a carbon rich atmosphere. Plants also are less effective at taking in essential soil minerals. This is all in addition to the threats to our food system by droughts and extreme weather. We’ve certainly seen very severe droughts in the USA (2011 in Oklahoma and Texas, 2012 in Midwest USA, and 2012–2016 in California) that have caused severe problems in the agricultural industries.
This report was written in an easy-to-understand manner. It is accessible and authoritative. It also gets to the issue people are most concerned about – the impact of climate change in their lives. I encourage anyone who is interested to download and read this document at the link above.
Friday 5 May 2017 06.00 ED
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