The Health Impacts of Climate Change: The Current State of Affairs and What Healthcare Professionals Can Do
By Manijeh “Mani” Berenji
Over the past 1.5 centuries, there has been growing evidence that the Earth is warming secondary to human activity. The 2-degree increase in global average surface temperature since the pre-industrial era (1880–1900) has contributed to a significant increase in accumulated heat and this heat is driving regional and seasonal temperature extremes, reducing snow cover and sea ice, intensifying heavy rainfall, and changing habitat ranges for plants and animals (1). The largest driver of climate change is the increase in the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration since the start of the Industrial Era, with an increase from about 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) in the late 1800s to over 400 ppmv at present (2). The health effects of these climate disruptions include an increase in respiratory, cardiovascular, inflammatory, and infectious diseases which disproportionately affect children, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, and low-income communities (3).
Considering the far-reaching health implications arising from climate change as well as the growing body of scientific literature on the subject, a targeted action plan with clear objectives and methodologies has been lacking. Moreover, continuous funding for international climate action is important to help poorer countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which will be key to ensure global emissions reach net zero by mid-century (4).
Current efforts to combat climate change include adaptation and mitigation strategies in a broad two-pronged approach (5). With respect to adaptation: public health preparedness (for infectious diseases and disasters), disease control interventions, and agricultural/livestock/fishery enhancements can all help to reduce the burden on vulnerable populations (5,6). With respect to mitigation: renewable energy (wind, solar), together with energy efficiency technologies, fossil fuel switching, nuclear energy, and carbon capture and storage are ways to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and thus dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions (5,7). An important theme in both climate change mitigation and adaptation is cobenefits, or the multiple benefits that a single activity or policy can generate across different sectors or fields of study (8). One group of researchers found that emission reduction measures to reduce global mean warming by about 0.5°C could simultaneously prevent up to 4.7 million premature deaths annually and improve crop yields from reduced ozone damage (8,9).
As healthcare professionals, focusing on the individual patient should be the primary focus. Identify the potential climate-related risk factors that are contributing to the patient’s medical condition(s). If there is an environmental component that is related to climate change, document that fact. Provide easy-to-understand resources that the patient and the patient’s family can explore further together. Refer to specialists with experience treating such patients. Connect with like-minded colleagues and develop best-practices for treating climate-related conditions. Advocate on behalf of your patients to policymakers and share the latest evidence-based literature to these stakeholders. By creating a community of clinician-scientists, the effects of climate change can be addressed in the short- and long-terms.
1. Lindsey R and Dahlman L. Climate.gov. “Climate Change: Global Temperature.” Available at: https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-temperature. Accessed on 8 February 2020.
2. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations, Earth System Research Laboratory Global Monitoring Division. “Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide.” Available at: www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/. Accessed on February 8, 2020.
3. Health Care without Harm. “Climate and Health.” Available at: https://noharm-uscanada.org/climateandhealth. Accessed on 9 February 2020.
4. Thwaites, J. “2020 Budget Shows Progress on Climate Finance, But US Continues to Fall Behind Peers.” Available at: https://www.wri.org/blog/2020/01/2020-budget-shows-progress-climate-finance-us-continues-fall-behind-peers. Accessed on 8 February 2020.
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