Climate Change and Health
We have a problem.
In the face of climate change, certain illnesses are becoming more common worldwide – but northern hemisphere, western, and western-dominated society is ignoring this increase. Many of the biggest problems are happening ‘far away’, in equatorial areas, and we are refusing to acknowledge the inevitable creep of those actions impacting the entire globe.
I think this is because we’re afraid. Especially in the US, where people routinely go bankrupt due to hospital visits and doctor’s appointments, addressing additional health issues while trying to fund our own needs can feel overwhelming and hopeless.
However, a conversation needs to be had on a global scale. No-one is safe until we’re all safe – and it’s on us all to know what’s happening.
How does climate change impact health?
Since you’re reading this, you likely already know climate change is permanently impacting our planet. The past few years, we’ve learned a lot about how our world’s fast changing climate is far more nuanced than simply higher temperatures. Although that alone would be devastating, we’re also facing unpredictable fluctuations, droughts, forest fires, flooding, and worsened storms – and our health is bearing the brunt of the consequences.
But what changes do these natural disasters bring about, exactly, and how do they impact our health?
It’s a fact that our planet is heating up, and this rising temperature has serious consequences.
Right now, a new chronic form of kidney disease is tightening its hold in an expanding belt around our globe, one with no regard for the disease’s traditional risk factors of high tension and diabetes. In fact, two-thirds of new cases in Bajo Lempa, El Salvador, had neither, and were otherwise healthy. So what gives? In a word: dehydration.
As our climate gets hotter, and monoculture farms continue their inhumane treatment of workers, exposing them to record-breaking heat for hours at a time, dehydration is slowly killing people.
This is exacerbated by workers opting for canned and bottled drinks like soda to avoid unsafe drinking water. A hospital in El Salvador now sees thirty new cases a month of people who, though otherwise healthy, are experiencing organ failure and a slow, painful death.
Hotter climates around the globe are causing similar upticks in kidney disease. A study in Florida showed that every 5° Fahrenheit (2.8° Celsius) increase of the state’s heat index caused a corresponding 47% increase in acute kidney injury.
But it’s not only kidney disease we have to worry about; as average temperatures increase, other factors come into play. While a higher temperature doesn’t directly spread contagious disease, there’s a kind of disease-carrying creature that loves the heat…
As it gets hotter, breeding grounds for disease-spreading insects expand accordingly. Mosquitoes, for example, can carry many different contagious diseases, some of them deadly. From 2015 to 2016, international headlines broke about the Zika epidemic spreading around South America, primarily in Brazil. The source? Mosquitoes.
This wasn’t a freak occurrence: climate change was to blame. The outbreak started after Brazil spent nine months 1° Celsius warmer than average, and during an El Niño dry season. Disease-carrying mosquitoes were drawn to still waters heavy rains hadn’t washed away, making prime breeding grounds for spreading the sickness. Although little more than a fever in healthy adults, Zika causes birth defects and other issues when transmitted from a pregnant mother to their unborn child.
Zika isn’t the only risk, though. Research shows that, under the same conditions, malaria is also more likely to spread. The drought conditions of El Niño seasons in the west, and drought years worldwide, mean that water sources dry up into stagnant pools that mosquitoes love. A rushing river erases these mosquito breeding grounds, but without rains to fatten the waterways, standing water lingers.
To make matters worse, the UN has warned that increased temperatures speed up the mosquito life-cycle, meaning they reach maturity and reproduce faster – leading to more mosquitoes spreading disease.
Other deadly illnesses, like the brain disease eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) have already seen a swift uptick in their outbreak rates. In the US, EEE has jumped from just seven cases per year nationwide to seventeen in the northeast region of New England alone – a rate not seen since the disease first started being tracked.
Mosquitoes aren’t the only insect we need to watch out for, either. Ticks have begun scuttling further across Europe, the United States, and forested parts of Asia. On top of nasty bites, many ticks carry Lyme, a serious, chronic disease that causes arthritic symptoms, severe joint pain, rashes, nerve pain, heart palpitations, facial palsy, and other neurological issues, and which over 300,000 people contract each year in the US alone.
And it’s getting worse: since 1991, US reports of Lyme disease have doubled. According to The Washington Post, Lyme is more prevalent after warm winters and springs – an increasingly common event as climate change worsens, leading to larger breeding grounds and increased ease of transmission of the disease throughout the year.
And ticks carry more than just Lyme; diseases like tularemia, Rocky Mountain fever, and even an allergy to red meat can all be contracted from them. As ticks get more common internationally, we all need to be on guard to keep our bodies safe from disease.
Insects aren’t our only health risk from climate change. With rising sea levels, melting ice caps, worsened hurricanes, and generally unpredictable weather patterns, flooding is a reality more and more of us are already having to reckon with. Although some parts of the planet are experiencing increased drought, others are victim to increased heavy precipitation brought about by climate change.
Flooding itself is traumatic and life-threatening, but its long-term effects have their own dangerous implications. Urban flooding, for example, may carry sewer- and waste-water with it, creating a melting pot of deadly diseases and bacteria like cholera, giardia, and salmonella.
As the ice caps and permafrost melt, something dangerous emerges: bacteria and viruses that have been frozen for decades – or even millennia – are being revived by this big thaw.
In 2016, Siberia faced an anthrax outbreak that killed two thousand reindeer, made over a dozen people ill, and killed one boy. The source? A seventy-five-year-old reindeer carcass. Previously infected but locked in the permafrost, it was exposed as the area warmed and the ice melted. Though this happened in a remote area and affected relatively few people, over seven thousand reindeer burial sites are scattered across Russia; relics of an anthrax outbreak that claimed over a million reindeer in the early 20th century.
The melting ice puts people back at risk; humans then and now contracted anthrax through the reindeer meat. As the permafrost melts, anthrax will re-emerge across Siberia.
But the permafrost doesn’t just hide anthrax: Siberian towns buried the victims of smallpox and the bubonic plague there as well – and some of those places are beginning to thaw.
So far, there are no signs of the global heat-up slowing down (in fact, it seems to be speeding up), so, as it continues, we face greater and greater risk of these sleeping diseases triggering new epidemics.
Permafrost is ideal for viruses and microbes’ long-term hibernation; it’s cold and dark, and there’s no oxygen, enabling perfect preservation until conditions change. It doesn’t even matter how old the bacteria is; scientists have revived frozen bacteria from the Arctic that was over eight million years old. Old diseases can still wreak havoc, and the faster the permafrost melts, the more we may awaken.
Existing conditions are also at risk
Climate change isn’t just unearthing buried infectious diseases, or helping the spread of illnesses like Lyme and chronic kidney disease – it’s also worsening the existing chronic conditions we face every single day.
A 2018 study showed that global warming is a key player in the sharp increase of wildfires worldwide. Hotter and windier conditions dry out already crispy regions like California. Forests’ dead leaves and branches become prime tinder for kindling sweeping, meaning the smallest spark can decimate large areas.
Forest fires not only wreck homes and lives – their smoke causes respiratory problems and worsens conditions like asthma. Asmatics are at a majorly increased risk of hospitalisation, bronchitis, and even death. These effects aren’t limited to the fire’s immediate area, either: particulate matter can travel through the air for many kilometres, so even places safe from burning, with clean-looking skies, can be riddled with particles that invade the lungs and put loved ones with asthma at risk.
Power outages can be an inconvenience for some, but for others they can be deadly. This year, Californian power company PG&E caused massive controversy by turning hundreds of thousands of residents’ power off for days on end to prevent swaying power lines from sparking fires.
While the intention was to protect residents from harm, the power outage proved dangerous for many. As forest fires, hurricanes, and high-intensity snowstorms increase globally, those who rely on power for medical devices find themselves in life-threatening situations. Motorised wheelchairs, oxygen machines, sleeping machines, and temperature-sensitive medications cannot function without power. The problem extends to people with limited mobility who rely on lifts for access to housing.
In the event of mass power outages, no systems are in place to take these needs into consideration. For example, the devastation caused to Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria was worsened by months-long power outages, stopping people from accessing essential care and necessities. Not everyone has access to a generator or an alternative place to go in the event of a power failure – so we all need to be on our toes to help our device-needing friends survive in these dangerous times.
It’s not all physical
Aside from climate change’s impact on physical health, or the imminent dangers we may face, what about our minds?
Given constant exposure to reports of floods, fires, hurricanes, chronic diseases, extinctions, and beyond, more and more of us are being gripped by anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.
The weight of uncertainty, losing homes, physical illness, or caring for sick loved ones has a tangible impact on daily wellbeing. Often, the people who face these mental health conditions are also those unable to move to a new home out of the line of impact, or to receive much-needed mental health services.
It’s worth noting that the global south – which contributes far less to climate breakdown than the global north – is disproportionately most affected by the changes the rest of us have brought about. Specifically, women of colour are more impacted by climate change than any other demographic. This is just another thread in the story of colonisers taking and wrecking more than they’ve built, and it’s time to hold ourselves accountable.
No matter where in the globe you are, eco-anxiety, fear about the uncertainty of our planet (and the fear that we’ll never do enough), is real. Activist and writer Kate Weiner of Loam Love has explored at length the ways climate impacts upon mental health, and the ways that eco-anxiety shapes us.
This anxiety pains millennials and Gen Z alike, leaving us feeling so hopeless that we’re making major life choices such as whether to have children based on climate change. In fact, this mental burden has become so great that one psychologist has coined the term “pre-traumatic stress disorder” to accurately describe our deep fear, anxiety, and grief about climate change and our future.
Mental health has just as many dangerous repercussions as unchecked physical diseases, so we need to start taking this growing eco-anxiety seriously. We have to find ways of living harmoniously in the treacherous landscape we have created.
I am not writing all of this to depress you. Trust me, writing about it is painful, too. But we have to know the stakes if we hope to make a difference; to know our fight isn’t fruitless, we have to know how important that fight is to begin with. Learning the physical and emotional costs of climate change on our bodies and minds is pivotal if we want to be prepared, take action, and change the future for ourselves and the generations to come.
Look at your own life and take action in small ways to create a greener and more sustainable space for the benefit of yourself, your community, and our globe, and speak out about the illnesses taking over your regions. Try several different approaches of how to face climate health crises: the more ways you look at it, the more informed you are.
Prepare yourself and others
The best response is to not stick your head in the sand. Climate change is stressful, but knowledge gives us strength – we can do a lot better when we know what to prepare for, right?
👉 Look into the diseases spreading in your area and learn how they’re contracted. Tell your friends and family members, and do what you can to protect yourself. For insects, wearing long sleeves and trousers when you’re in an area with mosquitoes or ticks can make a big difference. If you live in a hot area, keep your kidneys healthy by staying more hydrated than you think you need to.
👉 If you don’t already know, find out what climate changes your region is projected to face – or is already dealing with. Are you in a flood zone? Do you experience forest fires? Whatever it is, have a survival kit prepared so you’re ready in a snap. If you live somewhere where you may need to evacuate on little-to-no notice, have an emergency backpack or suitcase ready so you can head out on the fly and escape the danger zone.
👉 Never forget your friends and loved ones whose medically necessary devices require electricity or make moving quickly difficult in a crisis. Reach out to them and ask what, if anything, they need from you to ensure their safety.
👉 Follow local news about nature, diseases, and weather. Do the same for places you visit; read up before traveling, and do whatever you can to be ready for health risks present there. The more you know about what to expect, the more prepared you can be to keep yourself healthy.
Engage with your community
Changing the world doesn’t have to start with big steps; seismic shifts can sometimes begin in your own backyard.
- Get involved in climate-saving actions by adapting your own choices, big and small.
- Look into neighborhood organisations and groups that aim to make your neighbourhood more prepared and sustainable for the future – and get active.
- Co-ops, farmers’ markets, and other community-oriented organisations are perfect places to learn more. If your town has these, they may lead to resources including government involvement to advocate for clean water, local composting solutions, nonprofits, benefits, and even urban farms to volunteer on.
- If your area is particularly prone to a disease or illness from climate change, attend small-scale government meetings to push awareness of the issue. Small-scale actions can help build a movement: local meet-ups, organisations, and community events can all also address climate needs in your area.
- If you can’t find one – start one! Even a weekly or monthly meeting of like-minded activists can lay the groundwork for something truly beautiful.
- To prepare for unpredictable future weather, ask your apartment complex or landlord – or if you’re lucky enough to own a home, yourself – to invest in an off-grid solar system. By using renewables, you’re helping end participation in fossil fuels, but also taking a step towards keeping you safe in the event of climate disasters and major storms that may limit access to power when you need it most.
- These days, community is virtual, too. Staying engaged in online sources (like us!) and learning from each other is a powerful way to make a difference. Online forums and think-groups can help you find resilience and happiness in the face of climate change, and point you in the right direction for specific resources. By uplifting each other and bringing meaning into daily life, you can change the world through movements big and small.
Last but not least, take care of yourself. Find moments and ways to mitigate eco-anxiety by delighting in things that you know do you and the planet good: a stroll outside, or plant-based, sustainable, homemade treats.
Personally, a good detox with a face mask and a sci-fi novel from the library help me to recharge, before heading back into the world to help meet our unpredictable future with grace. Doing whatever you need to find happiness in these precarious times is powerful and radical. Be gentle with yourself. Take your time. You’ll be glad you did.
Together we can take actions on all scales to revolutionise our world, mitigate climate change, and prepare our communities in order to build a resilient, tight-knit, and vibrant future together.
Featured image by Fouad Ghazizadeh on Unsplash