|Wildfire smoke is one of the growing human health hazards from climate change. Above, a Sacramento, Calif., pedestrian wears a face mask during a period of significant smoke impacts from the Camp Fire on Nov. 14, 2018. Photo: Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.|
TipSheet: Ongoing Climate Change Will Bring More Bad News on Health in 2020
By Joseph A. Davis
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2020 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.
The coming year is likely to present more news about the health impacts of climate change — a story that is both local and global.
Your audience may not yet see why climate change is a growing crisis worth quick and drastic action — until they and their neighbors and loved ones face real pain, pain that can come in many forms.
Here are some ways to get a grip on this story.
Why it matters
When people get sick, injured and even die, that often becomes the most important thing in the world. Human suffering is something most people care about.
Health problems will be more frequent and
dramatic news as climate change
progresses in 2020 and future years.
Health problems, including those caused by climate change, also pose a major economic cost for individuals, families, communities, medical systems and society at large. Moreover, it is news, and will be more frequent and dramatic news as climate change progresses in 2020 and future years.
Just where and how the health impacts of climate will hit in 2020 is a little hard to predict precisely. But it is a good bet there will be heat waves, hurricanes, wildfire, continuing shifts in the geographic range of disease vectors, beaches closed because of bacteria and toxic blooms of algae, among other things.
The backstory — specific health threats
The connection between climate change and health has become better understood in recent decades, as indeed have public health problems and remedies.
- Heat waves. Hot days are getting hotter and more frequent. And more deadly. Excessive heat can make people sick in many ways. The ties to climate change are now more strongly established.
- Malaria. Worldwide, there are hundreds of millions of malaria cases each year and hundreds of thousands of deaths. It is spread by mosquitoes, and with warming they are invading new areas, even in the United States. But it’s complex and there are many variables.
- Zika virus cases broke into the news in 2015-16 when they were associated with birth defects in South America. Zika is spread by mosquitoes. It is not currently a problem in the United States. Some worry climate change could spread it.
- West Nile virus, found in the United States, is only one of several mosquito-borne viral encephalitis pathogens. While its epidemiology is complex, the warmer and wetter weather that comes with climate change seems to help transmission.
- Lyme disease is a serious disease that was first noticed in the United States during the 1970s. It is transmitted by vectors that include ticks and mice. Climate warming has been observed to cause the spread and survival of ticks into new areas.
- Other vector-borne diseases. Mosquitoes, ticks and other climate-sensitive animals transmit a number of other serious diseases, including chikungunya, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, dengue fever and others.
- Harmful algal blooms. Algae grows in water bodies for a complex of reasons. But warmer water, often caused by climate change, can make them worse. The resulting growths are sometimes called red tides. Not only can they kill marine and aquatic organisms, but they can produce toxins that sicken or kill people and animals.
- Air pollution. Smog not only irritates eyes and lungs, it makes people sick. Ozone, the worst ingredient in smog, is formed by certain pollutants when they are cooked by light and heat in the atmosphere. More hot days means more smog. Climate change makes that worse.
- Wildfire smoke. Smoke from large and persistent wildfires in recent years has become a serious hazard to human health. Often the smoke is so pervasive that it is hard to escape. It is more harmful to vulnerable populations. Climate change has made U.S. wildfires worse in recent years.
- Cholera. In places where sanitation and healthcare are poor, cholera can and does kill many people. The Vibrio bacteria that causes cholera grows more quickly in warmer waters — which climate change will bring. Cholera is really just one of the waterborne diarrheal diseases that climate change could worsen.
- Foodborne illness. The World Health Organization has estimated that foodborne illness sickens some 600 million people annually worldwide, killing 420,000. Generalizations are tricky, because there are so many pathogens involved and so many pathways. But studies suggest climate change could worsen many of the major kinds of foodborne illness, even in developed countries.
- Allergens/allergies. Experts say climate change will make allergies worse for many people by extending the allergy season and promoting the growth of things like mold and poison ivy. It is expected to increase pollen production and extend the season for trees, grasses and weeds. Some health consequences, like asthma, are serious. It has already started.
- Extreme weather injury/death. Hurricanes and wildfires do kill and injure people. Extreme weather is often treated as a separate topic of climate change impact, but it is a health consequence. Heat waves, floods, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and other climate-related weather extremes harm people’s health.
- Food insecurity. Yes, hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity exist in the United States, but we have a safety net and its weak spots are usually political and socioeconomic rather than climatic. Worldwide, however, food insecurity is indeed related to climate change. Weather and climate affect agriculture in many profound ways.
- Mental health. Worried about climate change? That’s the least of it. Anxiety and depression about looming climate catastrophe are a real thing. But the victims of extreme weather events (hurricanes, wildfires, etc.) caused by climate change suffer much worse psychological impacts such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Groups like the economically disadvantaged and first responders are especially vulnerable.
- Nutrition. There is even research suggesting that climate-related changes in growing conditions (such as increased CO2) may lower the nutritional value of some globally important staple crops.
- Talk to your state or county public health department about things like waterborne, foodborne or insect-borne disease.
- Has your area experienced floods, wildfires, drought, hurricanes or other climate-related disasters? What have been the health impacts on people in your area?
- Talk to health-care providers in your area — allergists, emergency room staff, infectious disease experts, etc. — to see what awareness they have of climate health impacts. Are they prepared?
- Who are the vulnerable populations in your area that may be especially harmed by climate health threats?
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a locus of pioneering and ongoing research into links between climate and health.
- World Health Organization, a U.N. affiliate that did a major report on climate and health in 2003.
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency with the broadest public-health purview.
- U.S. Global Change Research Program. This federal interagency body compiles the National Climate Assessment. Health chapters in the Third Assessment and the Fourth Assessment are useful.
- The USGCRP did a special report in 2016, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment, which is thorough and authoritative.
- “Changing Planet, Changing Health,” a 2011 book by Paul R. Epstein, M.D., and Dan Ferber, one of the pioneering books on the subject.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency has some useful information on climate and health, left over in archives from the Obama era.
- Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, broad, authoritative and current.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 40. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.