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CHALLENGES

No longer a distant threat, climate change is now directly affecting your health. Its effects are likely to worsen over time. Climate change is responsible for higher average temperatures and more frequent heat waves. Called “a silent killer,” excessive heat causes more deaths in the US than all other weather events combined. Hotter, drier conditions are also causing longer wildfire seasons and worse wildfires. Catastrophic fires displace people from their homes, while smoke from wildfires worsens air pollution and causes breathing problems. Meanwhile, warmer ocean temperatures and increased sea levels have increased the severity of hurricanes and tropical storms, which are associated with elevated levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders in addition to causing physical damage. Moreover, rising carbon dioxide concentrations are changing the distribution of disease-carrying parasites, increasing the chances that infectious diseases like malaria and dengue will spread. These are just some of the ways that climate change affects your health.

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Some groups face a disproportionately high risk of adverse health effects resulting from climate change. The level of a person’s exposure to climate impacts is determined by a range of factors, including one’s occupation, socioeconomic status, time spent in risk-prone locations, and a number of mental or behavioral factors. Systemic power imbalances exist in our society, resulting in Black, indigenous, and other people of color experiencing worse health outcomes on average than white people. Many of the same factors that contribute to the exposure of these populations to climate stressors also reduce their ability to prepare for and cope with the effects of climate change, both in the short- and long-term.

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Climate change is costly. A study of just six climate change-related events that struck the United States between 2000 and 2009 accounted for more than $14 billion in lost lives and health care costs. And in addition to costing lives and health, climate change poses the most serious threat to our economy. Without substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, economic losses resulting from climate change are expected to exceed the gross domestic product (GDP) of many US states by the end of the century. Globally, the World Bank estimates that without climate-resilient development, climate change could force 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030.

 

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SOLUTIONS

In the fight against climate change, no single solution can address all the needs that arise. Together, both tested solutions and emerging ideas play a role in improving the resilience of our communities while improving the livelihoods and health of all people. While mitigation strategies directly reduce the progression of climate change, adaptation (preparing for and coping with life in a changing climate) addresses the real impacts of climate change that we are experiencing now. Fortunately, many mitigation strategies also strengthen our health and our ability to adapt. For example, promoting cleaner energy sources to reduce climate-warming emissions has the added health benefit of reducing our exposure to pollutants. Similarly, increasing active transportation methods like bicycling reduces emissions from cars, and improves our health by promoting physical activity, which can prevent heart disease and obesity.
Many of these near-term solutions are already well-studied, and need to be put into action. In fact, many countries throughout the world have climate response plans in place, but most have not been able to implement these plans for a variety of reasons. Common barriers to action range from insufficient funding to a lack of technical capacity. At the Center for Healthy Climate Solutions, we look to make these solutions actionable. Successful development and adaptation will require coordinating between stakeholders, prioritizing sustainability, contextualizing our solutions in local communities and geographies, and working across sectors.
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We know that the health risks associated with climate change are amplified for vulnerable populations. Reducing exposure to climate change stressors by improving housing or increasing access to preventive health services can make an outsize impact for those who are at greatest risk. Unfortunately, the proportion of the population that is vulnerable to climate change impacts will only grow in the coming decades. As we build more resilient infrastructure and expand our adaptive capacity, we must prioritize our most vulnerable populations so we can reduce health disparities and promote climate justice.

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Creating more resilient communities requires everyone’s involvement. Many of the activities required for a successful response—including identifying threats and vulnerable populations, designing and implementing plans that are custom-tailored to meet specific needs, and communicating key messages in a targeted fashion—are done primarily at the local scale. Community-based adaptation means partnering with local governmental bodies, public health departments, businesses, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations. 
Establishing a line of collaboration and communication with communities can inform public health officials while creating a relationship of trust and reliability. For example, work done in the United States to develop more resilient food systems has relied on community relationships with faith leaders to successfully identify where help is needed. Similarly, community-based approaches throughout South and Southeast Asia have led to innovative, locally-driven solutions to create resilient livelihoods and economies that protect natural resources, land, and watersheds. Leveraging existing community infrastructures also allows for a rapid response and mobilization against the health threats of climate change. By acting now, we can provide immediate benefits to human health and the economy, and improve educational and health outcomes for younger and future generations.
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