Climate change is happening now, and it is harming our health in far-reaching and often surprising ways.
In a report out today from The Lancet, one of the world’s top peer-reviewed medical journals, a consortium of leading medical experts tracks the harm climate change is having on our health.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone with a pulse that climate change is harming our health here in the US, where in the past three months we’ve seen hurricanes cause untold damage in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, as well as wildfires in Northern California that killed dozens and ravaged a city of 175,000. Climate change is making these extreme weather events worse, as we’ve heard repeatedly from meteorologists.
But according to the new Lancet report, hurricanes and wildfires are just the tip of the (melting) iceberg.
- Infectious disease. Mosquitos that spread disease are thriving in new places due to climate change. Dengue fever, which infects 50-100 million each year, is the world’s most rapidly expanding infectious disease – and that’s due in part to climate change. Two types of mosquitoes’ ability to spread Dengue globally has increased by 9.4% and 11.1% since the 1950s. Here in the US, the geographic reach is expanding for mosquitos and ticks that cause Dengue Fever, West Nile Virus, and Lyme Disease.
- Allergies. The allergy season is getting longer. In the US, the ragweed pollen season has increased by days to weeks since 1990, depending on location. More days of pollen means more asthma attacks, more allergy medicine, more school and work days lost, and more discomfort for the millions of Americans who suffer from hay fever. Hay fever already costs our economy more than $6 billion annually. Climate change is making this worse.
- Heat waves. In 2015, a record 175 million people globally were exposed to heat waves. Heat waves can exacerbate heart disease, which makes the elderly especially vulnerable to heat. In the US, elderly Americans are increasingly exposed to heat waves. Each year between 2000 and 2016, an extra 14.5 million elderly Americans were exposed to heat waves. This is equivalent to the population of Pennsylvania.
The Lancet report quantifies the immediate human toll of climate change, highlighting the fact that climate change threatens to undermine the public health gains of the past 50 years (think antibiotics, immunization, and dramatic increases in life expectancy).
Meanwhile, we need only look close to home to find a real life example of the complex, serious health crises of a world in the grips of climate change. Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, causing the longest blackout in US history. Only 30% of Puerto Rican utility customers have electricity, more than 40 days later. Infectious diseases are spreading and medicine shortages are making chronic and mental diseases worse across the island.
Moms are counting on doctors, nurses, and public health officials to demand climate change solutions for the sake of the health of their patients. As Jeff Nesbit notes in the New York Times, “This is now a medical and public health fight, not just an environmental one.”