Our Climate and Our Health
Photo by Li-An on Unsplash
This updated adaption from the three-part series authored by Chris Paterson and the Community Commons team looks at climate change work over the past few years and adds new resources to help continue the recovery.
News coverage on climate change tends to focus on the more visible manifestations—the increase in surface temperatures and precipitation in the U.S., rising sea levels, flooding, drought and severe weather events.
Less visible and, until recently, less talked about are the risks posed to human health. Whereas a hurricane or flood can kill or injure people directly and destroy built structures, changes to the climate have more subtle, yet equally harmful, consequences to our health and well-being. The safety of our food, the places we live, work, and play, the air we breathe, the water we drink are all dependent on the climate and associated weather patterns.
The full impact of environmental injustice is coming to light as well. Ensuring that everyone lives in a healthy environment and that there is fair protection from environmental burdens and equal distribution of environmental benefits is an increasing focus.
Many systems in our economy—food, energy, transportation, healthcare, water, and land development—are significantly impacted by the natural environment.
Enjoying a thriving natural world is about having clean air, clean water, clean land, and well-functioning ecosystems. A healthy environment is one that is free from environmental hazards, one that is resilient to future changes and threats, and one that fulfills our needs to connect with nature.
The following curated resources focus on addressing climate change and helping us return to a thriving natural world.
Increasing Attention to Climate Change and Health
Attention to the connection between human health and climate change is beginning to evolve. Both in the U.S. and globally, public health professionals and organizations have begun to focus more on this issue.
Some of the more commonly-explored linkages between climate change and human health include heat-related death and illness; the changing patterns and prevalence of infectious disease; changes in air quality and its impact on chronic disease; and changes in food systems and nutrition.
Infectious diseases are probably not top of mind when thinking about climate change, but they should be. Rising temperatures, rising sea levels, floods, and increased humidity are breeding grounds for food, water, and the spreading of vector-borne pathogens—diseases that are carried by mosquitoes or ticks, like malaria or Lyme disease.
Drought and increasing temperatures contribute to poor air quality. The dry conditions worsen the effects of wildfires, ground level ozone, pollen, and fine particulate matter in the air. Not only do these conditions put physical stress on those with chronic disease, they also can lead to or worsen lung disease, asthma, and allergies.
The people at greatest risk of serious harm from these climate change-related events include children, the elderly, people with chronic health conditions, the economically marginalized and communities of color. As public health professionals and communities strategize on how to respond to the threat of climate change, it’s important to look at it not only from a population health perspective, but also consider how different populations within the community will be affected, along with their ability to respond and rebound.
Climate Change Impact on Mental Health and Social Cohesion and Environmental Justice
Our well-being extends beyond our physical health, but also the health of our relationships and community. When those connections are fractured, either gradually or immediate, our psychological health becomes more exposed to harmful stressors like climate change.
Likewise, the psychological impacts of climate change on individuals naturally extend to the community. Social cohesion and social capital are imperative in building mental and physical health resilience in communities. Disaster scholars have consistently noted the importance of social cohesion and networks during and after catastrophes.
These impacts vary across individuals and communities simply because individuals and communities are vulnerable to climate change in varying ways. Communities with higher populations of children and elderly are more vulnerable to the physical and psychological impacts of climate change. Additionally, communities with outdated infrastructure, higher levels of poverty, or poor access to health services—especially with infant, elderly, disabled, and migrant populations—are not only more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but can be less likely to rebound as quickly—adding additional stress and anxiety to already overburdened individuals.
Climate Change Impacts on Our Food
The impacts of climate change on agriculture and food systems have far-reaching consequences. The health and productivity of the commodity agriculture industry is directly tied to environmental conditions. Livestock, crop yields, and agricultural workers are all impacted by rising temperatures and increasing probability of flooding—putting many farms and farming communities at risk.
To their surprise, researchers in Canada and the United Kingdom found that the impact of climate change on food systems is 8 to 11 percent more severe in developed countries than developing ones. They suspect it could have something to do with developed countries’ focus on large monoculture farms that are not as agile in adapting to severe weather, whereas farmers in developing countries in Africa and Latin America tend to focus on strategies that minimize risk.
To sustain farmers, communities, and the economy, our agricultural system must continue to anticipate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Perhaps in response, we are seeing a rise in farmer to consumer models emerge—CSAs, farmer’s markets, and food hubs are growing throughout many parts of the country. These are all strategies that may help mitigate climate change’s impact on the larger food system. By increasing people’s direct access to smaller, local systems, disruptions in far and away supply chains are less likely to have a negative effect.