Global warming is a complex issue, and its effects can be traced in so many different directions. Like a tree’s roots, these effects are causing damage to the very foundations of ‘life as we know it’ – in some cases, irreversible.
Whether these effects are close to home or half the world away, the conclusion remains the same: we must reinvigorate our commitment to climate reform, and to protecting the world – its people, its communities, and its ecosystems – from rising temperatures and erratic natural disasters.
From the work we can do as individuals – minimising waste, reducing our carbon footprints, utilising renewables alternatives like solar to power our homes – to the work we can do on a larger scale – commercial solar installations, soil regeneration, carbon capture – the solutions are here already. All it takes is the right level of awareness, and a widespread call to action.
Here are just some of the ways the climate emergency is already impacting public health, and what we can expect in the near future.
While global warming can (and does) manifest in many different ways, with increasingly erratic weather patterns taking place around the globe, heatwaves are arguably the most recognised as a symptom of climate change.
Over the past few years in particular, we have seen hot periods taking place more frequently, and with more severity, in many parts of the world. For much of the population, it’s easy to forget the full extent of the risk they pose to human health, but, sadly, our awareness of these events (and their fatalities) is likely to continue increasing in the coming years.
From dehydration to heat stroke and exhaustion, heat waves can threaten the lives of those living with cardiovascular and respiratory issues in particular. The very old and the very young tend to suffer more, particularly when they are not used to intense heat.
In the UK last year, the Met Office reported a new record of 40.3°C, with deaths 42% higher than the five-year average. The National Weather Service defines ‘dangerous heat’ as anything above 39.4°C, but heat stroke can occur in lower temperatures.
Of course, heat waves also pose a number of secondary risks. Drought, wildfire, and power shortages are all common occurrences during periods of intense heat and sunshine, and all pose their own risks to the more vulnerable among us.
It has now been 10 years since the death of 9-year-old Ella Roberta Adoo Kissi Debrah. Her death was the result of an asthma attack, brought on by the severe air pollution to which she was exposed living in South London.
Even after a decade, her story remains an important reminder of the future we can expect if air quality is not improved, and the devastating toll of global warming reversed. Ella became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as the cause of death on her death certificate – a landmark moment for the country.
Around the world, countless people face a similar, daily threat to their health. India is particularly affected by air pollution, with nine out of ten of the world’s most polluted cities located in India.
The term air pollution covers a long list of adverse effects. From acid rain to haze and smog, the presence of volatile organic compounds and particulates, and harmful gasses like methane, nitrous oxide, ammonia and carbon monoxide, life in the city during a time of climate catastrophe poses a very real risk to health and wellbeing.
There is a complicated relationship between climate change and air pollution. In many ways, climate change exacerbates the pollution in the air we breathe, since atmospheric changes (particularly warming) can keep those pollutants closer to ground-level. At the same time, however, pollution is the primary cause of climate change, with carbon being the most obvious culprit.
The two exist in a delicate balance – one that must be disrupted globally if our health (and the health of the planet) is to take precedence.
Last year saw devastating floods overwhelm significant areas of Bangladesh and north-eastern India, with 318 recorded deaths and more than 165,000 hectares of crop area severely damaged by the water.
Sadly, the impacts of disease, displacement, malnutrition, trauma, and lost income will no doubt continue to make themselves known for many years to come.
The flooding was, of course, the result of abnormally high rainfall, which put thousands of villages and countless adults and children at risk. In Bangladesh alone, around 80% of the country is floodplain. Without worldwide change, the worst is yet to come.
Warmer weather makes it easier for a lot of insects to reproduce and spread across wider areas, and for them to be active throughout more and more of the year.
They have always posed a risk to humans and animals. Ticks can spread a very long list of pathogens between hosts – perhaps, most famously, Lyme disease, but also tularaemia (rabbit fever), babesiosis, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
By some estimates, the prevalence of Lyme disease in the United States is on track to increase by as much as 20% over the next two decades as tick numbers continue to climb higher and higher, and the environment grows more accommodating to their spread.
Malaria has long represented one of the most significant diseases in the world. Famously spread by mosquitos, malaria has proven a near-unstoppable foe to scientists around the world. While the mortality rate has dropped significantly over the past 20 years, the fact that many of the world’s malaria hotspots are located in less economically developed areas makes it harder still to protect populations from the disease.
Sadly, climate change will undo much of the word that has been done to target at-risk areas. It also means that the number of at-risk areas around the world are set to increase, unless we can keep global temperatures from climbing higher still.
Growing risk of pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic was, at the time, labelled an unprecedented event – something unlike anything current generations have ever witnessed before, or could have anticipated.
Worryingly, however, many scientists have stated our very worst fears: that the impacts of climate change are going to increase the likelihood of more global health crises.
In the summer of 2022, a small area of southern France was impacted by dengue fever – another disease spread via mosquitos. Unusual, yes, but certainly not unexplainable, and something that we can expect to see as more of the world experiences the conditions in which tropical diseases thrive.
Between drought, flooding, and other increasingly erratic weather patterns and natural disasters, malnutrition will continue to pose a sobering threat to many communities around the world.
As of 2021, more than 149 million children under the age of 5 were stunted as a result of malnutrition. With natural disasters having a severe impact on cops, from floods claiming once farmable land to bad weather reducing those vital micronutrients and diseases increasingly threatening livestock, there is a very real risk of malnutrition spiralling out of all control.
The displacement caused by natural disaster like flooding and storms has a profound impact on communities around the world. As more and more communities are uprooted, the number of individuals at risk will also increase. Without homes, access to clean water and heat and shelter from the elements, the world will struggle to keep up with the number of vulnerable individuals requiring aid.
From extreme weather events to displacement, food and water insecurity, poor air quality and growing anxieties for the future, climate change is already having a devastating impact on mental health around the world.
Higher temperatures have been observed to exacerbate low mood and mental health disorders, and recent research in the US and Mexico has demonstrated a clear link between heatwaves and serious mental health struggles.
What’s more, certain medications commonly used to address low mood and other mental health struggles can make temperature regulation more difficult. As temperatures climb, more and more people will find their health suffering, even if they don’t consider themselves particularly vulnerable to heat or sun exposure.
Ecological grief is a term that will take on new significance in the coming years. A condition characterised by a sense of loss brought on by destruction to one’s environment, ecological grief poses a very real threat to our mental health – particularly in parts of the world where the impact of global warming is most clearly felt.
There are so many risks associated with global warming that go far beyond the obvious – and, undoubtedly, some that we have yet to even consider. The planet is supposed to be able to maintain a homeostasis – a delicate balance in which humans, and all other living things, can survive. At the moment, we are on track for destruction in many different forms, and the only way out is through change.