Friday 5 May 2017 11.00 BST
As a climate scientist, I spend time and energy studying how fast the Earth is warming and what is causing the warming. This knowledge helps us predict what the future will look like. But, what most people are interested in is, “how will it affect me?”
Some impacts we are pretty clear about, like the impacts related to sea level rise, increased storms and heavy precipitation, and increased drought and heat waves – particularly the impacts these events have on the economy. But climate change will affect us personally as well (by personally, I mean our physical person).
In fact, climate change is already affecting personal human health around the world. This subject was the focus of a summary report just published by the Medical Society Consortium. What I really liked about this report is that it breaks down some of the key impacts by region. Unfortunately, the report is limited in scope to the USA. However, the general conclusions and trends can be illuminating for people outside the USA as well.
What was also welcome is that this report was prepared by physicians (not climate scientists) of major medical societies and the conclusions are based on the best available and current information of both the climate and health fields.
So what did they find? Perhaps most importantly they find that climate change is already affecting our health. This isn’t a future problem for the next generation. It is a problem that is present and growing. They also report that some populations are more susceptible to climate change effects. Among the most vulnerable groups are children, student athletes, pregnant women, elderly, people with chronic health conditions, and the impoverished. A third key takeaway is that the problems will get much worse as climate change continues.
The study reports that if you live on the West Coast, wildfires, extreme temperatures, poorer air quality, extreme weather events, and agricultural risks are occurring. On the East Coast, you can add vector-borne diseases as a risk area. The central USA region is also similarly being affected.
As you dig deeper into the report, you learn about how these various climate-related features are affecting health. Each factor is dealt with by three questions: 1) What is happening? 2) How does it harm our health? 3) Who is being harmed?
For instance, with respect to extreme weather, the report correctly notes that the frequency and severity of some weather events such as heavy downpours, floods, droughts, and major storms are increasing. This harms our health because these events can cause direct injury and death as well as displacement. Extreme weather can also harm vital infrastructure like communication systems, homes, and reduce the availability of clean water and food. Finally, extreme weather can lead to acute outbreaks of infectious disease while at the same time reducing access to health care.
Air pollution is another example area. Climate change is affecting air quality in many ways, including increasing chemical reactions in surface air (air we breathe), increasing pollen, and leading to more forest fires. Lower air quality obviously affects people with breathing problems (such as asthma and allergies). It can prolong the pollen seasons and worsen allergy symptoms. Less obvious effects like increased humidity and more heavy rainfalls can exacerbate air-quality problems indoors through mold growth for instance.