Conversations about climate are everywhere. You are not imagining it. More often than ever, you are hearing the word ‘climate’ in mainstream media, in politics, and even in entertainment and social media. For the first time ever, there are people with ‘Climate’ titles in the upper echelons of the White House leadership, major networks like CBS have publicly committed to sharing more content about the topic, and even celebrities and sports teams have commitments related to reducing their footprint.
During Earth Day last month, we shared a lot of content about ways to be more sustainable in your personal life. There are a lot of great products to reduce your single-use plastic consumption, tips to reduce your energy use at home, and recipes to avoid food waste. But sometimes we talk about the need to be more sustainable without talking about why.
‘The climate’ is often described as a ‘thing over there’—something that impacts melting ice in the Arctic, rising waters in the bayous of Louisiana, or a lack of rain on a remote mountain range. Those threats probably feel like they’re far, far away. But actually, the threats of climate change are global—they’re everywhere. While these threats may look different to different people in different regions, we are all already impacted.
The reality is that climate change is the next global pandemic. At first, in early 2020, Coronavirus felt far away – maybe it didn’t feel like our problem. It was invisible, difficult to pinpoint, and eventually felt like it was too big to tackle. Because of those factors, we didn’t put our guard up. We know the story after that.
However, with collective action and a trust in science, we may finally be starting to see the other side of the pandemic. The good news is that the threats from climate change can be minimized with a set of similar tactical solutions that were used to address COVID-19. While we may not see ‘the other side’ of climate change for generations, we must take collective action to address the associated threats, proactively putting our guard up to protect ourselves from issues that may still feel invisible, far away and difficult to pinpoint.
It’s time we start thinking about climate change as a human health issue. The sooner we recognize that our surrounding environment is simply the support system for how our bodies perform and operate, the sooner we will take actions to protect it. Here are five reasons why climate change should be considered a human health topic:
1. Air Quality
One in 8 Americans have asthma, which is often triggered by pollutants in the outdoor air. We rely on the natural weather cycle to cycle our air, pushing out pollution (ozone from cars, manufacturing, or even natural allergens from trees and agriculture) away from the places we live. Unfortunately, the changing climate has resulted in an increase in ‘stagnant days,’ where the air doesn’t cycle as quickly and the pollutants simply linger. Eighty-three percent of US cities have seen an increase in the number of ‘stagnant days,’ which not only impact people with asthma, but may lead to an increase in the number of asthma cases and can affect people that don’t even have a breathing condition.
2. Food Insecurity
This may be an issue that feels like it’s “over there,” but let’s talk about a few foods we love: avocados, chocolate, and wine. These happen to be three foods that are grown in places hugely impacted by extreme weather, water scarcity, and wildfires. Changes in our climate are making these products more difficult and expensive to produce and the production also happens to be hugely carbon intensive and water intensive to produce. While some of us have the privilege not to see global hunger every day—at least right now—we will all be impacted by climate-induced changes in how we’re able (or unable) to access food.
3. Disease Transmission
This one is scary, but it’s worth mentioning a few critical points: Warming temperatures in certain regions have expanded the habitat for disease-carrying critters like mosquitoes. Additionally, due to the changing climate (in addition to rising population and better technology), humans are going into previously unexplored areas of the world, presenting opportunities to discover new diseases.
The last main point, which was evident during COVID-19, is that climate change impacts the severity of disease on certain populations—and typically, there is a direct correlation between populations negatively affected by climate change (areas of poor air quality, for example) and populations that suffered the most during the pandemic (especially because of the respiratory symptoms).
4. Extreme Weather
This topic may feel closer to home, since just within the last year, the US hit a record-breaking number of hurricanes, saw a record-breaking wildfire season, and experienced record-breaking cold temperatures. Nearly every corner of the US experienced some ‘unusual’ weather.
Of course, weather and climate are related, but it’s important to remember the health impacts of why these records affect people. Not only do most of these events put people’s lives at risk, but they produce long-term impacts that can also affect human health. Extreme weather is hard on plants, which are our natural air filters and our food; it can pollute our waterways, making it more difficult to equitably access clean water; and it creates mental and physical trauma, which can manifest in many long-term health issues.
5. Stress and Anxiety
Eco-anxiety is a real thing. Chances are, this article may have produced some within you. Studies show that 51 percent of Americans say that they feel ‘helpless’ about climate change and that 29 percent of Americans are ‘very worried.’ Climate change is scary, but recognizing the challenges we might personally face will catalyze us to take more swift action.
Sometimes we avoid this topic because it feels overwhelming, but the good news is that we’re actually further ahead with addressing climate change than we were with the pandemic. We have decades of research about the risks associated with rising carbon emissions and we already have solutions and tools to reduce the impacts. By tapping into the human side of the climate crisis, we can show people why this is important to them and why it’s not an ‘over there’ problem.
While this topic can be stress-inducing, we already know the solutions. Now we must equip ourselves with the reasons why to prioritize them. If not for our own health, it’s for our friends, our neighbors, our pets: we must prioritize climate action solutions for the health of those we love.
To learn more, visit the CDC’s recent publication on Climate Effects on Health.