How Climate Changes Our Health
How Climate Changes Our Health
Blistering heat has been breaking records all over the globe this summer. It’s the hot news story of 2023.
But if your air conditioner is working and you don’t live near an area prone to wildfires, is it really worth worrying about?
Has the whole concept of climate change become either hackneyed or hopeless, overstated or relentless no matter what we do?
Like or not, our planet is changing. It’s getting warmer. And the entire human race will be affected. No country can opt out; no socioeconomic class, no specific religion, and no skin color is immune.
You see, however much humans love to draw lines in the sand, the Earth does not recognize those boundaries. The skies are not divided, the seas are not divided, and we do not divide the land in a way that is relevant to our ecosystems. Those partitions are all human constructs.
The warming of our planet affects more than just air temperature. It affects the quality of the air we breathe, the food that we eat, where we can live, and what we do for recreation.
An entire book could be written on the changes our planet is destined to encounter on its current course—and many have been. But for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on some of the health concerns humans will experience if this process goes unchecked, and finally, on some ways we can push back.
Please note the following scenarios describe the likelihood of what our future may look like if we do not make changes. But it is not set in stone. Not yet.
So, specifically, how does a warming climate affect our physical and psychological health?
The most obvious immediate threat from exposure to hotter air is hyperthermia, which happens when a person’s body temperature becomes too high for their natural physiological mechanisms to regulate. The older and younger populations are especially vulnerable to this. Hyperthermia causes shortness of breath, headaches, muscle cramping, vomiting, and can lead to dehydration and severe fatigue. And it can progress to mental confusion, fainting, and even death.
Hot and dry weather conditions lend themselves to wildfires, vastly destructive in themselves, but which release ash into the air. The ash and smoke contain large amounts of small particulate matter, excessive carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, and other noxious gases. These exacerbate asthma, COPD, and other breathing illnesses, causing respiratory distress in patients with these afflictions. When it gets bad enough, it affects healthy people, too. Inhaling airborne ash further puts undue stress on our cardiovascular systems and may lead to an increased incidence of heart disease.
Violent, torrential rains falling from the sky have given rise to dramatic stories of deaths from sudden flooding in unprecedented proportions, as in Philadelphia in July 2023. When water levels rise six to seven inches in forty-five minutes, there’s little time to escape.
Perhaps less obvious, is how the hotter climate and flooding affect our livestock and food production, which can have dramatic secondary effects on our health.
As temperatures increase, many crops will fail, including corn, which will create a shortage for us and other animals. Much of our livestock rely heavily on corn for food, so as they perish, meat and chicken will be harder to find in the grocery store.
Excessive heat can also lead to the death of farm animals or cause an increased incidence of disease, limit milk production in overheated cows, and infertility in animals that do survive. So our diets will be changed by the unavailability and, at times, inedibility of foods.
A number of factors, including evaporation due to heat, come into play concerning the dispute over available water. Recently, Arizona, Nevada, and California managed to broker the Colorado River Deal, a proposal limiting how much water each state may take from the overburdened channel that supplies water to the lower states. If sufficient water is not available for farmland, not only will the residents of these states feel the pinch, but the rest of the country will have less available food. In the urban areas, there are already restrictions on how often watering your lawn or washing your car is permitted.
Did you ever think the United States of America would run out of water?
Coral reefs are considered to be the “rainforests of the sea” and are as important as our rainforests on land. When ocean temperatures rise, reefs become bleached, and the organisms that make them up die. Then, those reefs can no longer provide viable breeding grounds for fish nurseries, so many fish species are lost as well, which means there is less food for the local sea life that rely on them for survival. This means our fishermen will see their livelihoods threatened, and your restaurant choices will dwindle. Off the coast of Florida, coral reefs are suffering from ocean warming right now. As I write this, it was reported that the water temperature off the coast of Florida is now over 100o. That’s a temperature most like to reserve for their hot tub.
And warmer oceans send the fish that do survive diving to greater depths in search of cooler, more favorable conditions. This further reduces the food supply near the surface that other aquatic animals, like dolphins, and yes—even humans—depend on.
The temperature rise is causing our glaciers to melt, and the planetary water tables are rising. In fact, whole islands are sinking in the Pacific Ocean, including the Marshall Islands and the entire country of Kiribati. Populations that used to flourish by the coast are having to pick up their lives and move inland.
But melting glaciers present a problem beyond the compromise of prime real estate. As glaciers melt, more water is also absorbed into the atmosphere, which contributes to heat-trapping and global warming, but more immediately, it creates heavier rains and more violent storms. We are already seeing this reflected in the higher frequency and intensity of recent hurricanes. It is predicted to only get worse.
Insects, including mosquitos, are migrating north to escape temperatures that have become too hot for their needs; this brings these new species into contact with unfamiliar human populations. Malaria is spreading locally for the first time in Texas and Florida. It is only transmitted through the bite of the Anopheles mosquito and cannot be passed directly from one person to another. But now that this mosquito is moving north to the cooler climate of North America, we are starting to see cases of malaria in people who have not necessarily been traveling to southern Africa, Asia, and other hot and dry regions. Fortunately, although malaria can be devastating, it is treatable, and relatively few cases have been reported so far.
Sizable areas of land on our planet that have been frozen for centuries. Within this permafrost lie the remains of animals, plants, and insects which have been preserved in a cryogenic freeze—along with bacteria and viruses which are completely foreign to modern day Homo sapiens. As these regions start to melt, we will see the release of microbes, including some to which we may have little or no immunity.
All of this can sound ominous, and for those who have a predisposition for worry, anxiety, or depression, it can feel overwhelming. The good news is that we do have advanced medicine and technology to detect and address many of the maladies and situations we will encounter as our planet warms. That is, if we can manage to keep politics and profiteering out of the equation and use pure scientific research and fair implementation.
But the potential sources of new cases of mental illness abound. Air quality is deteriorating around the world, and has occasionally shut down activities in some regions, chasing even healthy people indoors. In June of 2023, New York City registered the worst air quality in the world as a result of drifting ash from Canadian wildfires. Their theatre district was shut down and many incoming flights were canceled.
In 2021, many perished when their basement homes flooded, adding to some city-dwellers’ unease when hurricanes or torrential downpours are forecasted, and flooding in general has become more of an issue.
The mental trauma of needing to stay indoors, of needing to get out of a basement home, of being afraid to breathe, can be a serious trigger for those with anxiety or depression. As these events become more commonplace, they may create a feeling of isolation and doomsday fear for those predisposed to mental illness. And for the mentally healthy as well.
The world population is still struggling to crawl back from the immense emotional trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many who were not anxious before, developed mental challenges. The effects of global warming can feed into and magnify these woes. Especially during those times when storm warnings and air quality alerts come up.
What Can We Do?
The planet-wide warming process has been unequivocally attributed to the “greenhouse effect,” the increased concentrations of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and water vapor.
Even taking small steps to reduce these emissions can make a difference. Both in terms of actually halting the rise in temperature to protect our physical health and in guiding our mental state. Action is the cure when we feel paralyzed in the face of danger.
And your actions can inspire others. The more people get involved in solutions, the smaller our problem will become, and the healthier we will all be.
It has been shown that the cattle industry contributes up to 15% of greenhouse emissions, and interestingly enough, red meat is not an ideal food for our cardiac health anyway. If each of us reduced the amount of meat we consume, we could reduce the demand for the number of cows raised, reduce the amount of methane they produce, and the enormous amount of grain currently fed to cows could be reallocated for human consumption instead.
You can conserve energy by turning off your lights and TVs when not in use. Recycle your trash when possible, especially paper. The more trees we leave standing, the more oxygen is released into the air, and the more carbon dioxide is absorbed from our atmosphere by the normal photosynthetic process of our plants.
Many states offer tax discounts for converting your home to solar power in addition to the tax credit offered by the IRS. Converting your home to solar, if you are able, would not only reduce the use of fossil fuels, but your electric bill would be lower.
Avoid setting off firecrackers. Silly, right? Can one day a year make a difference? But if you live in a neighborhood like mine, Fourth of July fireworks can go on for a week, and often include Memorial Day and Labor Day, and the air quality at those times takes a hit. Worse, when the ground is dry and hot, as it’s been with some local draughts, the danger of fire is especially acute. In 2020, fireworks in a California gender-reveal festivity set off the El Dorado Fire, a blaze that torched over 22,000 acres and burned for 71 days. Plus, the noise from firecrackers is terrifying for local wildlife and many of our pets.
There are multiple local chapters of organizations you can get involved with to help create a healthier planet. The Nature Conservancy, The Sierra Club, and World Wildlife Foundation are just a few. Sharing your feelings and ideas with others can give you a sense of community and purpose, and stave off fatalistic depression.
And importantly, please encourage your state and local representatives to support policy decisions that choose planet over profit.
Our environment is the cornerstone of our existence, and therefore, of our health. We all have the same fundamental needs for survival: clean air, nutritious food, and shelter. If we could sensibly approach the Earth’s challenges as one unified human race, we would be able to thrive into the next century… and beyond.