Deadly air and dangerous bugs: What climate change means for human health

In our latest story, “Seven Ways Climate Change Could Kill You (Really),” FERN Assistant Editor Kristina Johnson reveals why global warming is as bad for human health as it is for the planet’s.

After an October report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication said that only 1 in 4 Americans could name a health consequence of climate change, Johnson spoke to leading public health officials to find out what higher temperatures and more extreme weather could mean for our  wellbeing. She shows that climate change is already landing more Americans at the doctor’s office. The story is online today with our media partner, The Guardian.

“The World Health Organization predicts that climate change will cause 250,000 additional deaths per year around the globe between 2030 and 2050, primarily from malaria, diarrhea, heat exposure and malnutrition,” writes Johnson. “The health threat will be worse in developing nations, where people are generally more exposed to the elements, and advanced medical care and sanitation are less available. But studies show that Americans won’t be exempt, especially those who live in the nation’s low-income communities, children and the elderly.”

Johnson lays out a seven-part roadmap of what Americans can expect in their climate-changed future– from hot-weather-induced depression to a rise in salmonella outbreaks. She points to the National Climate Assessment’s research on the connections between warmer days and longer allergy seasons, as well as hotter summers and the spread of insects that carry diseases such as West Nile virus and Dengue fever.

Agriculture, especially, will take a hit from volatile weather and more pernicious pests, Johnson says. Food prices are expected to rise as yields drop, pushing more consumers to purchase cheaper, less healthy products. As a result, climate change could exacerbate America’s obesity and diabetes epidemics.

When Johnson asked John Balbus, senior advisor for public health at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, why so few Americans associate climate change with their health, he explained that even the American medical community isn’t as informed about the connection as it should be.

“The health sector doesn’t normally focus on environmental issues,” he said. “There’s more focus on the issues that come in the door that we can treat immediately, and climate change has been perceived as a future problem, not an imminent one.”

Yet, doctors are already seeing more patients with respiratory diseases like asthma, and across the nation, more frequent wildfires and drought are fouling the air and damaging harvests. Scientists say 2014 was the hottest year on record.

Researchers told Johnson that the best way to protect the health of Americans—and the health of billions of other people around the globe—is to quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “If we don’t demand dramatic action now, this won’t just be a matter of academic interest,” said Kim Knowlton, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It will increasingly be a matter of life and death.”

You can read the full story on The Guardian and here on our site.