Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
It’s no secret: our planet is suffering from extreme weather and warming. Let’s not ignore this. Climate change is considered the biggest global health threat of the 21st century – yes, a greater threat than this current pandemic. The effects of climate change include record temperatures and drought, melting glaciers, severe storms and floods, fires, and the many health threats that accompany them: air pollution, disease-carrying insects, access to safe water and food, displacement, and mental illness. As is so often the case, the impacts of global warming disproportionately affect the most marginalized groups of people, including those with disabilities, low-income families, the elderly, and those who live in more remote areas.
How does this impact our personal health?
Hotter days are expected to become more common and severe. Rising temperatures in summer months can add many thousands of premature deaths from heat stroke and exhaustion, and from the exacerbation of heart and kidney problems. In general, children and older adults are the most vulnerable to heat, along with those with chronic medical problems and those on certain medications.
Frost-free seasons will lengthen. Warmer weather allows mosquitoes to live longer, leading to increased disease transmission. In warmer climates, ticks experience longer periods of activity. This will increase the spread of diseases like Zika, dengue, and West Nile.
Increased ground-level ozone and smog will result in worsening air quality, which in turn will lead to more serious respiratory diseases. Larger and more frequent wildfires will continue to unleash dangerous particles and gasses into the air. Allergy seasons will last longer and be more intense. 88% of the world's population breathes air that does not meet the World Health Organization's air quality guidelines.
Crop yields and food security will be impacted. Floods, droughts, and storms occur in greater frequency with climate change, and any of these can wipe out harvests. Pest infestations are likely to increase. Elevated levels of carbon dioxide reduce the nutritional value of some crops like wheat and rice, and warmer summers affect many crops. Warmer temperatures also reduce milk production on dairy farms, and can reduce water quality by encouraging the growth of harmful algae.
Extreme weather like hurricanes and wildfires bring with them a decline in our safety and well being. It harms our health care infrastructure, making it more difficult for people to receive needed care. Heat causes mood changes and fuels aggressive behavior, and worsening air pollution leads to an increase in mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
How might an individual slow global warming?
Use your energy: Install renewable energy sources like solar panels, or use a utility company that generates much of its power from wind or solar sources.
Use your home: Weatherize to better retain both cooling or heating.
Use your appliances: Choose appliances that are energy efficient.
Use your water: Reduce water waste, which reduces the amount of energy it takes to get water to you.
Use your food: Minimize food waste, and consume less meat. 10% of energy in the United States goes into growing, processing, packaging, and shipping food. Approximately 40% of this food ends up in landfills. Note that livestock are among the most resource-intensive of all food sources.
Use your lighting: Invest in LED bulbs, which use up to 80% less energy than conventional incandescent bulbs. They are cheaper in the long run.
Use your car: Drive a fuel-efficient vehicle. Save fuel by keeping tires properly inflated, and by keeping it well maintained.
Use your voice: Speak up for positive change.